In rural Tennessee, Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old newcomer to the live-broadcast ecosystem, attempts to become the next big Internet crush. Teen girls all over the world tune into online “boy broadcasts” like Tester’s, in a 21st-century version of Tiger Beat, where all your favorite heartthrobs might actually interact with you online for a minute or two — or more for the right price. But Tester’s earnestness sets him apart, peering wide-eyed into his laptop camera and professing unconditional love and support to his female fans for hours on end. What’s he selling? Male validation. In return, he asks for fame and a better life for his family. Will Tester’s open heart give him celebrity status and a chance to escape from his dead-end town, or is this new ecosystem built for failure?
Liza Mandelup’s fascinating documentary Jawline, now showing on Hulu, distills complex concepts about growing up in today’s connected world with its new and fleeting versions of the American Dream with a moving human portrait that questions the values we’ve passed onto our young people. Mandelup approaches this peculiar world with an intimate air of BFF confidentiality and finds that as esoteric as the Internet and its niches feel to some, boy broadcasts represent modern youth’s starvation for love and acceptance and susceptibility to exploitation — a tale, unfortunately, as old as time.
I sat down with director Liza Mandelup, and then separately with Austyn Tester, the earnest subject of the film, and Michael Weist, the young and driven entrepreneur/talent manager who is Tester’s polar opposite.
Danny Miller: Liza, I came to this film knowing next to nothing about this world. At first I was thinking how great it was at leveling the playing field, at giving someone like Austyn who had no resources and was kind of miserable in his small town a real chance to follow his dreams. But by the end of the film I saw it more as a cautionary tale. Do you see it that way at all?
Liza Mandelup: No, I don’t think I would call it a cautionary tale because I think the film gets into a lot of the positive aspects of this phenomenon as well. Like finding a community when you don’t feel that you have one and providing refuge to young girls who are feeling lost or even suicidal. I was very surprised by those aspects of this world.
Yes, I was moved by some of those girls, too, especially in the lower key settings where they got to spend time with Austyn and were so honest with him about their feelings. Unlike some of the other online personalities you see in the film, Austyn seems so sweet and unassuming, a real innocent.
That’s what I loved about him and why I picked him. We were shooting for like a year without a main character. I started by talking to the fangirls. Then I started making contact with some of the boys to see who I might shoot. The boys I spoke to all had around 10 or 20 thousand followers and they all had managers and did these big tours, something I wasn’t that familiar with — it took me a while to understand the system. That’s when I found Michael Weist who was such an interesting character. When I eventually heard of Austyn, he didn’t have a manager and hadn’t even done a tour yet.
And when Austyn finally got a manager (not Michael) and went on tour, that’s when everything started to go downhill for him, right?
After he did his first tour, I followed him back home with my camera and I had these visions that he’d be walking all over town giving high fives to everybody, that girls would be running from different directions to see him, and that he’d be this local celebrity wherever we went. But instead I found him to be very anxious, not wanting to leave his room, and not being that into broadcasting anymore. I felt so bad because he’s had a really difficult life and he was really starting to get the kind of attention that he so craved as a means to get out of his town.
He seemed so real, like he wasn’t faking his sincere attitude at all.
Oh, he clearly wasn’t faking it or else he would have continued faking it! Instead, some things happened to him that really hurt his feelings and he started to lose interest. I purposely chose someone that I thought had very good intentions, not some ruthless, obnoxious person who would do whatever it took to get to the top, so his being a little fragile was a risk I was taking.
When you starting shooting Austyn, did you have it in your head that maybe he’d be super famous by the end of the film? I did!
To be honest, I genuinely thought that he might be because of those qualities you mentioned. Girls just loved him! But there’s something very arbitrary about this world, and I’m not sure he was prepared for it. But I’m so grateful that I met Austyn because he took me to a place that’s way more human than I ever could’ve hoped for. When I started making film, I was worried that the film would lack humanity.
Austyn had none of the veneer or blind ambition that so many of those boys seem to have, including Michael Weist, the manager.
Right. I’m very happy to have Michael’s voice in the film but I also wanted someone who could reflect a very human experience, not just the statistical side of things like how to increase the number of your followers. I kept reminding myself that even though we were telling a story against the backdrop of social media technology, it was still a human story.
Which is why I found Austyn so appealing. Do you think he’ll be able to use the attention he’ll get now that the film is out to reboot his social media presence?
I kind of hope so. As a documentary filmmaker, I’d like to give back to him in some way and I hope the attention that the film gets helps him to figure out how he wants to exist in this world. But to be honest, I don’t know if he wants it anymore, I feel like we may have caught a moment in time. That’s the crazy part about documentaries that exist in a very specific timeframe. When we made this film, Austyn wanted that kind of success more than anything in the world. But in the course of making the film, he changed.
He’s such an interesting case study.
At the end of the film he kind of returns to his previous life. Now he has this opportunity to come back but I’m not sure how that will go. He was so young when we started filming and he’s still trying to figure out who he is, both in his real life as well as online.
After talking to Liza, I went down the hall to talk to young entrepreneur Michael Weist looking like a Hollywood superagent. Austyn was supposed to be in Los Angeles that day as well but had some family issues he had to deal with in Tennessee so he joined Michael and me via speakerphone.
Michael, I admit I had no idea that all these young online personalities even had managers, I learned so much about how it all works.
Michael Weist: Yeah, it’s kind of like a subculture that most people don’t know anything about. I’m glad that the film finally shows that to the world.
Austyn, I think you come across so great in the documentary but it ends on a bit of a questionable note regarding your Internet career. Have you gone back to that at all since the shooting ended?
Austyn Tester: To be honest, I’m not doing it right now, no. I’ve just been really lazy. Since I went on tour with all these famous social media people, I’ve had to come back home and get an actual job. I’m working at a Starbucks now.
Do you both like how you come off in the film? Are there any moments that make you cringe?
Michael Weist: Watching it back is definitely like seeing this time capsule of your life. But ultimately, it shows who I was at that time. I think Austyn can attest to that, too, that’s just who we were then. I don’t think there’s anything I’d really change because all that made me who I am today.
Austyn Tester: When I watch myself in the film, there are moments when I cringe. I was pretty young and I think some of the stuff I do online is pretty bad like the lip-synching! Things have changed a lot on social media since the film was made, so I’d really like to figure that out.
Cool. Michael, I assume you still have your business managing online people?
Michael Weist: Yes, I’ve been able to refine my company a bit more, trim off pieces that needed to be trimmed, and grow in the right areas. The world of social media has changed quite a bit and only people who adapt to it will survive.
What are the qualities you look for in a client?
Michael Weist: Number one, you need to have consistency on all your platforms. You need to be very determined, you can’t half-ass it. You have to be very personable, very outgoing. That’s the formula for success.
Austyn Tester: I know if I jump back in, I’d have to be consistent which I haven’t been at all lately. I get it, though. Why would people follow me if I’m not giving them anything to watch?
It was moving to see all those girls at your public events getting so much joy out of interacting with you. Was that ever overwhelming, dealing with those hordes of girls?
Austyn Tester: I always felt it was friendly, but sometimes it was a bit too much! I was always super nervous before a live show, though, just sweating and hurrying through it. I saw all the screaming girls and would think, “Oh my gosh, what if they don’t like me?”
Were you surprised when you watched the film and learned how much you helped some of those girls who were really struggling in their lives?
Austyn Tester: Yeah, that was amazing to see, I’m so glad I helped people with my social media presence, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I always tried to remain positive and inspire people. It was kind of crazy because I was like 15 or 16 changing these 13-year-old girls’ lives. You suddenly realize, holy cow, you really do have an influence on people. It’s kind of hard for me to believe that happened.