SXSW Review: ‘Jezebel’

Rating: 3/4

Las Vegas, 1998. A woman moans on the phone, “faster,” while lying on her bed, slowly swirling her phone’s chord around her petite finger. She’s having phone sex, and her younger sisters are widely awake in the next room listening to it all. So opens Numa Perrier‘s empowering and sensual Jezebel, for which she directs, writes, and stars in.

Perrier’s film center around a family of three sisters: Sabina (Numa Perreir), Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), and their younger sibling. The three also have a brother Dom (Stephen Barrington), while Sabrina has a boyfriend named David (Bobby Field)—a tie-dye shirt wearing slacker. The family’s mother is in the hospital, attached to a breathing tube. We never discover what put here there, but within 15 minutes she’s passed away.

With the passing of their mother, everyone must find some form of employment. The family’s only income comes from Sabrina, so she gives Tiffany an ad for webcam models .

The webcam firm is owned by Chuck (Dennis Jaffee) and Vicky (Zoe Tyson), and there are a few ground rules: No nudity in the free chat room; No sharing of your personal information; No giving out of your phone number; and no penetration, even in the private chat rooms.

Perrier’s screenplay, based on a true story, is a simple and contained family drama and coming of age piece. We follow Tiffany, who soon assumes the name Jezebel as her webcam alter ego, go from a naive and exuberant worker—who showed up to her first day wearing overalls and a training bra—to a cunning— albeit naive—pro. Jezebel, during that span, also meets a man named Bobby in her chats. Bobby, who we never see, has a foot fetish and becomes obsessed with Jezebel. And for the record, Jezebel finds him to be sweet too.

Within the film, Perrier inserts themes relating to standards of beauty, a normalization of sexual-based work, and female empowerment. At one point, Sabrina takes on the persona of a white blonde woman on the phone. Moreover, to help Jezebel during her interview she gives her sister a wig. As the two sit in front of the mirror, Jezebel gleefully dons the wig with Sabrina’s help. The scene becomes a rite of passage for the young 19-year old. Blonde hair, even straight long hair, has long been a standard of beauty that Black culture has at various times embraced or ridiculed.

Sex workers have rarely been embraced at all. Often viewed as taboo, by both men and women, Perrier creates a normalization here. The women employed through this occupation aren’t doing more than acting, in its purest sense. Jezebel is taught by Vicky to imitate penetration without actually doing anything. And the conversations between all in involved, including Sabrina and Jezebel, come matter-of-factly. It’s telling that only Dom, the male of the family, has an issue with the profession, which demonstrates how men have often shamed women’s sexual freedom.

But Jezebel‘s major theme arrives in the form of female empowerment. For the majority of the film, while David and Dom go out drinking, it’s the women who are working. And when Jezebel must strip nude for Chuck so he can inspect her body, a scene that has all the trappings of a slave auction, she’s left shaken and scared, but later becomes confident in her sexuality.

The film’s action is also driven through the relationship between Jezebel and Bobby. The cinematography and lighting, as Jezebel occupies the purple/violet lit room for private chats, adds sensual tension to conversations that never become very sexual; in fact, they’re innocently mundane. And as Bobby and Jezebel become closer, Jezebel’s confidence grows.

The small ensemble all bring a light touch to their work, especially Perrier and Tenille (who’s in her feature film debut). Perrier is laid back and reserved, occupying the weathered surrogate mother role. Tenille’s ability to drastically shift from spontaneous glee to a wellspring of anger and hurt is tremendous. And by Jezebel‘s end, when both sisters look into the mirror, there’s a resignation and belief that all will be well—even if such conclusions are still left in doubt.

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