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In Conversation With:Liza Mandelup

by Liam Taft

Her latest documentary about teenage social media stardom, Jawline, screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest last week and received a Special Mention in the Youth Award category.

Earlier this year, Eight Grade became one of the first coming-of-age films to truthfully capture the teenage experience online. 13-year-old Kayla turned to Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube for comfort and reassurance – but it also exacerbated her social anxiety. These contradictions are also at the heart of Liza Mandelup’s new documentary, Jawline.

The film follows Austyn, a sixteen-year-old boy from Tennessee, who dreams of becoming rich and famous in the world of online ‘positivity’ broadcasting. But the inspiration behind the film came from Mandelup’s desire to make a documentary about teenage love. “I was interested in making a film about how teenagers are experiencing emotions today. I just kept thinking about how technology is shaping the way they think and feel.”

This fascination with teenage emotions led Mandelup to explore live streaming, where teenagers broadcast live from their bedrooms to their fans with messages of positivity and acceptance. “Live streaming creates this weird connection where the girls are falling in love with the broadcasters, but it was a false sense of intimacy because the guys don’t actually know them.”

Mandelup chose to focus in on the story of Austyn because “he was so genuine and his life was so cinematic to me: his house, with all of his family living together and rooting for him. I just loved everything about his world.” Jawline follows Austyn as he starts broadcasting, gets signed by a social media agency, and tours with other ‘influencers’ across the US – think A Star is Born for the TikTok generation.

But Mandelup juxtaposes this by filming Michael Weist, a twenty-something manager reaping the benefits of the ‘Gold Rush’ of social media. “I always wanted a manager to show the business side of it because I felt like Austyn was just one side of the story.” Michael lives in LA with some of the internet’s most famous social media stars, but spends most of his time analysing metrics and signing deals with Instagram hot-shots.

These stars have what Austyn, living in a low-income household with a single parent, can only dream of. Class disparity and the ‘American Dream’ have taken on a new form with the advent of social media. “I think that they’re all escapists. They’re all looking to escape a situation, whether it’s an economic one, an emotional one, or because of family life. And I think Austyn was escaping for multiple reasons and his financial situation was one of them, but I don’t think it’s the only one.”

The viewers of Austyn’s broadcasts are looking for an escape, too. They’re mostly young teenage girls, who’ve been bullied or suffer from issues at home or mental health problems and crave affection and reassurance. But Jawline also captures a sense of uneasiness that underlies the relationship between broadcasters and fans, where managers and stars alike capitalise on teenage girls’ emotions. “It’s about the feeling of love and connection that these girls crave. And so I think that they’re leaning into that, by thinking about what these specific girls want. There’s this need here, and they found that need there, and I think the world developed around that. They want someone who cares about them, who’s affectionate to them, who tells them they’re pretty.”

Mandelup recognises that teenage fandom has changed considerably over the past few decades. “When I was growing up I had distance between the musicians I liked as a kid. I just felt like I didn’t have access to them – I knew I didn’t. I never thought that I would be able to get to know them personally, even though I always wanted to.” With live streaming, this fan relationship has become more emotionally intense. “It makes teenagers feel like the stars are available to them at any time and place and that they’ll always be there for them. What was interesting about being part of this world was that it’s taken to such an extremity in terms of the emotions they feel. It’s like a super fandom.”

But how did Mandelup go about capturing this fandom on film? The proliferation of digital technology has meant that documentary filmmakers have had to adapt their style to reflect the online world. In Jawline, Mandelup develops a seamless cinematic language that artfully transplants the small screen onto the big screen. “I was constantly thinking about the ways I could put their lives into an ethereal, cinematic dream world.” This included experimenting with editing techniques, lenses, and lighting, in order to capture an artful Gen Z aesthetic.

Jawline is an empathetic and non-judgemental exploration of an emerging online subculture, whilst truthfully capturing the syntax of online communication. The film will premiere on Hulu in the US later this year and is currently seeking UK distribution.

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