Jawline doesn't feel like an adult's portrait of Gen Z the way a fictional work like, say, HBO's Euphoria does, awash in neon lights and parties with loads of underage drinking and drug-doing. Instead, it feels like a peak behind a curtain. Mandelup started researching teen trends when she was reflecting on her own adolescence, thinking about how different it must be now that young people live their lives online. Her initial reaction was what the hell is this? as she processed the girls freaking out over these non-traditionally famous boys at influencer meet and greets. But finding YouNow was a eureka moment. "I saw these teenagers were having these public-private conversations," she says. "And I was like, wow, getting access to the secret world of teenagers used to be so difficult and it was a feat in itself. And there's many movies about that. These teenagers today are just broadcasting their life."
Mandelup first made a short film in 2016 called "Fangirl" from the female perspective before interrogating the figures on the opposite side of their webcams for her new feature. In doing so, she achieved the access to these quasi-celebs that the fangirls only dream about. Still, she doesn't see the fandom surrounding these budding social media stars as the same as the obsession of the ARMY with K-pop megastars BTS or [insert latest hot boy band here].
"It's not entertainment. It's connection," Mandelup says. "It's like, 'this person is someone that I follow, because I'm really connected with them and we're like friends.' But we're not friends." Mandelup also sees the relationship as symbiotic. "My sense is that they also needed something that was very similar to what the fangirls needed," she says, recalling moments when they would all, fans and creators, talk about their hometowns and bullying.
She paints these interactions in soft lighting and dreamy pinks, offsetting the harsh glow of the computer where Austyn communicates with his adoring public. She wanted it to feel like a diary entry that's just a little bit creepy. "I was obsessed with that language of when something could be really bright and dreamy, but really fucked up at the same time," she says.
Which brings me to the ultimate question: Are the kids alright? Austyn wants to spread "positivity," which is not an altogether bad goal as vague as it is, and he's naïve enough that those aims at least seem to come from a place of altruism. But there's something upsettingly cynical about the situation out in Los Angeles where manager Michael Weist takes his clients shopping on Rodeo Drive and optimizes their content for maximum likes. It all seems soulless, at its core, and you can't help but wonder where anyone's parents are.