MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to talk about social media influencers. You've probably heard a lot about them. Some are household names, like the Kardashians, and some are famous within certain worlds, like Logan Paul or the makeup artist James Charles. And you might have wondered, what exactly do they do? And why does anybody want to be one?
A new documentary, "Jawline," gives us an up-close and personal look into that world - but not the one of red carpets and big blowups inside luxury homes, although there's a little of that. This is the story of a 16-year-old boy who just wants to be somebody and get out of his small town. His vehicle is a so-called boy broadcast aimed at teen girls. The film is called "Jawline," and it won the Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Liza Mandelup directed the film, and she is with us now.
Liza Mandelup, thank you so much for joining us.
LIZA MANDELUP: Thank you for having me. I love this show.
MARTIN: Oh, I'm so glad to hear. So how did you get interested in this subject?
MANDELUP: I kind of started by thinking about my own teenage years. I went through a lot, and I wanted to tap into those emotions for a film. And my next train of thought was how different it must be to be a teenager today when so much of your life is lived through a screen, and everything you do is documented on social media. And I just started exploring things in that world. And I found what you see in the film, which are meet and greets. And once I looked up what a meet and greet was, it kind of all came out of that.
MARTIN: OK, so meet and greets play a big role in this. I guess there are meet and greets for all kinds of influencers. But for these boy broadcasts, right, they play a particular role. What is that?
MANDELUP: So essentially, these girls are watching these boys all day, every day. But they can - this could go on for years without them ever having actually met them in person. And so the idea of a meet and greet was that I'm going to give you this in-person experience with me for the first time in your life. And these girls will travel far and wide to do that. And it's basically just taking that interaction off the computer and putting it into real life.
MARTIN: Well, I think that for people who aren't familiar with what's going on with teenagers, you know, it might be confusing because I think people might understand the concept of, like, meeting the boys in your - the band that you like. But these guys, these young guys, these boy broadcasts - they're just guys, right? They're not selling, like, we're in a band. We're not singers.
MARTIN: They're not performers. They're basically what - like online friends?
MANDELUP: Yeah. They're selling live my life with me. And so it's like you can wake up with me. You can eat breakfast with me. You can know my mom. You can know my dog. And these girls just, like, tune into that alone. And it's very strange, but once I started filming and talking to a lot of these girls, I realized it's a response to what's going on in their life. And all they want so desperately is for someone to care about them and someone that's a peer - like, you know, not necessarily their parents, but, like, they want to feel like they're walking down the halls of high school, and someone notices them.
MARTIN: So let me just play a short clip from the film where you - where some of the girls talk about their connection to these boys who are the center of these boy broadcasts. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JAWLINE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The fact they're popular and they act like that, it's really incredible how they're so nice to us.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Like, I feel like he's a friend, but he doesn't know yet that we're - we have connection, I guess.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I just feel like they're, like, family to me sometimes because, like, they always say, like, I'm there for you, and don't cut yourself. So then I stopped doing that because they told me to.
MARTIN: So the level of influence that they have is - seems, you know, fairly significant, right?
MANDELUP: Yeah. I mean, they are aware that these are girls that feel insecure and unloved and lonely, and they're leaning into that, and they're saying, I can help you with that. I can make you feel better about yourself.
MARTIN: So the focus of the film, as I said, is it started - as I understand it, it started out you were interested in these girls - like, why did they watch these broadcasts? But then you got really interested in this young kid, Austyn Tester, who's trying to make it. And he doesn't sing. He doesn't dance. He's just a nice young guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JAWLINE")
AUSTYN TESTER: I'm not famous right now. Hopefully, I'll be famous soon. And I'm just going to tell you this, guys - just whatever you want in life, go get it.
MARTIN: What is his deal? Like, what's he trying to do?
MANDELUP: Yeah. I think - I mean, at first, I was it was interested in the girls, and I started there. But I I felt like they felt like they knew these boys so well. And I was, like, surely you don't because there's nothing that you receive online that's the whole truth. And they were being almost manipulated to think that they were getting this real version of the boys. And I just feel like when I was watching the broadcasts and stuff and also just when I - just sort of thinking about people's presence on the Internet - that is not them, even if that's what they're selling.
And so I knew I wanted to find someone who had, like, sort of high stakes in terms of making it. And so I kind of felt like Austyn had a lot of the similar struggles as the girls, and he was also trying to escape something, and he so desperately wanted out and, like, some sort of social upward mobility. And I just felt like he would make for a good main character.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think this film really shows is this is a grind. I mean, he's expected to post, you know, all the time. It's just not that easy, you know?
MANDELUP: It's not.
MARTIN: And the other side of the film is, like, he's in a small town in Tennessee. And on the other side of the country, you have another character named Michael Weist, who is a manager. And that's a whole scene. He's living with his clients in this house in LA - kind of looks like a bit of a frat house. I'll play the short clip, and then people can kind of come to their own conclusions. But it comes off like he's bullying, goading them, like, into posting all day. Let me just play this clip, and then we can talk more about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JAWLINE")
MICHAEL WEIST: Yes. You're going to do the damn video.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't have a camera. My camera got stolen.
WEIST: We're going to find a camera. There - looks like there's the camera right there on the counter. You're going to use that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can we do something else? Like...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I was just on broadcast for 35 minutes.
WEIST: OK. I'm sorry you had to work for 45 minutes. Now you're going to film a video.
MARTIN: OK. You know, all kinds of alarms are going off in my head while I'm watching this. Like, first of all, is this a typical setup? I mean, is this the way it works? Because I understand that a lot of people in order to kind of grow their social media presence do engage managers and people like that. But is this a typical setup?
MANDELUP: I mean, the thing that I found to be really weird when I was first starting this film was when I would look up different boys that were on tour, every single one of them had a manager. And so I immediately was, like, I need to put a manager in this film. And so Michael was actually just a very unique character to me. Like, he himself was a teenager managing these other teenagers, acting like a businessman and conceptualizing everything they were doing, running all their finances, making all the brand deals. And I just was feeling like this was a teenage world run by teenagers for teenagers.
MARTIN: But again, like, all kinds of alarms are going off in my head here. Like, what is going on in that house?
MANDELUP: So the house that you see in the film is kind of like a concept house. So he invites all these boys to live with him. And they're teenage boys, so they leave their parents' house, and they live in this, like, mansion in Hollywood Hills. And they all have, like, social media presence. Like, they all have, like, a lot of followers. But then he also brings in some boys that don't have that many followers, and he grows the ones that don't have many followers. And the ones that do have a lot of followers - he gets them even bigger. And they're supposed to collab on videos, and they're just supposed to constantly turn out content.
MARTIN: You know, it seems, though, that this - you know, this film is about, like, a phenomenon that's going on. As you said, it's like an economy. It's like a world run by teens for teens. And part of me thinks what this film is really about is, like, the American dream and how...
MARTIN: That's not really accessible to these kids except through this.
MANDELUP: I love that you said that because the entire time I was filming, I was thinking of, like, this new American dream because we were all over America filming this film through - from casting to go into different shows to filming with different girls and different boys. And I just felt like every single person is a channel now, and every single person wants to use that channel to get famous. And the new American dream is overnight celebrity through social media. And so all these kids are growing up who are super tuned-in to social media feeling like they are really close to that dream. But it's an illusion. It's totally an illusion.
MARTIN: That's Liza Mandelup. She's the director of "Jawline." It's available now on Hulu and in select theaters.
Liza Mandelup, thanks so much for talking with us.
MANDELUP: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.