'Jezebel': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of House of Numa
Tricky material handled with sensitivity and humor.

A financially desperate 19-year-old woman gets a job working as an internet cam girl in Numa Perrier's debut feature.

You wouldn't think that a film about a 19-year-old African-American woman forced by financial desperation to take a job as an internet sex cam worker would be a feel-good experience. But that's exactly how to describe Numa Perrier's Jezebel, receiving its world premiere at SXSW. Dealing with its potentially discomfiting subject matter with sensitivity, insight and humor, the pic marks an auspicious debut for its director-screenwriter, who also plays a supporting role.

The semi-autobiographical 1990s-set tale features Perrier as Sabina, who lives in a cramped Las Vegas apartment with her boyfriend and four family members including younger sister Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille). Tiffany has been caring for their seriously ill mother and finds herself adrift when she dies. Sabina, who makes her modest living as a phone sex operator, suggests to Tiffany that she seek employment as an internet "sex cam" girl (a profession that was then in its infancy).

Tiffany applies for the job at the company housed in a small, run-down office. Stripping herself naked in front of the man who runs the operation, Tiffany is advised to perform some personal grooming before she gets in front of the camera. "You're gonna need to shave that. This isn't the '70s!" she's told. Despite her real name being eminently suitable for her new vocation, Tiffany is advised to assume another identity and decides to call herself Jezebel.

One of the cam girls, Vicky (Zoe Tyson), shows Tiffany the ropes. She's advised that there's a rule against penetration, which would result in a prostitution charge, and that there are camera tricks that can be performed to give the clients the appearance that she's actually touching herself. Most importantly, she must urge her viewers to pay extra for more lucrative "private shows."

The filmmaker presents the provocative situations in both non-judgmental and non-exploitative fashion. Tiffany, the only "live black model" at the website where she works, begins to revel in her newly discovered sexuality and the power she has over her clients. She also asserts herself when one of them calls her the N-word, demanding that the customer be banned from the site. Her boss refuses, making the excuse that he's one of their best customers.

Tiffany's workplace situation becomes more complicated when she develops an emotional attachment to her most loyal client, Bobby (Brett Gelman), surreptitiously giving him her phone number and a post office box address so he can contact her privately and send her gifts. She's severely reprimanded when her flouting of the rules is discovered, making her receptive to the entreaties of a pair of female porn stars who intend to start their own website and want Tiffany to work for them.

The film somehow becomes an ode to feminist empowerment with its depiction of the way the women bond together and take pride in their work, which they consider a form of acting. Tiffany, rather than being ashamed of her new profession, revels in the financial freedom it provides.

It's tricky territory, but the filmmaker handles it with impressive skill. Much of the credit must also go to Tenille, who delivers a sexy, emotionally nuanced and compelling performance in the lead role. She, along with the filmmaker, is clearly going places.

Production company: House of Numa
Cast: Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier, Stephen Barrington, Bobby Field, Brett Gelman, Rockwelle Dortch, Zoe Tyson, Dennis Jaffee, Jessa Zarubica
Director-screenwriter: Numa Perrier
Producers: Winter Dunn, Camila Vargas, Dennis Dortch
Executive producers: Livia Perrier, Zola Mashariki, Janine Sherman Barrois, Bobby Campbell, Todd Remis, David Moscow
Director of photography: Brent Johnson
Editor: Brittany Lyles
Composer: Deija Marie
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)

88 minutes