★★★½☆ - Satisfying
Filmmaker Numa Perrier only lived in Las Vegas for three years as a teenager, but her feature debut “Jezebel” is infused with real-life experience and a sense of place, putting it alongside movies like Rebecca Thomas’ “Electrick Children” and Matthew Ross’ “Frank & Lola” in showing the authentic rhythms of Vegas life beyond the Strip. It’s still very much a Vegas movie, though, with its focus on life in a weekly budget motel and a main character who works as a cam girl. Perrier based the movie on her own experiences working as a cam girl in Vegas in the ’90s (which is also when the movie is set), and there’s a real sense of personal history informing the story. Perrier even plays the character based on her own older sister.
The filmmaker’s proxy is 19-year-old Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), who lives in a Budget Suites room with her older sister Sabrina (Perrier), her brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington), Sabrina’s boyfriend Dave (Bobby Field), and Sabrina’s daughter Juju (Rockwelle Dortch, Perrier’s real-life daughter). With her mother dying in a hospital, Tiffany and her family struggle to make ends meet, and as the movie opens, Sabrina is the only one with a steady job, working as a phone-sex operator while the rest of the family can’t help but listen in from the other room.
One of “Jezebel”’s greatest strengths is its matter-of-fact depiction of sex work, and Sabrina isn’t ashamed of or disgusted by her job; like any other job, it’s sometimes enjoyable and sometimes a chore. As the movie reveals later, Dave is actually one of Sabrina’s former clients, and while he’s the kind of character who would turn out to be a gross predator in a broader, more conventional movie, Perrier portrays him as well-meaning and helpful, if sometimes a bit clueless and insensitive.
So when Sabrina comes to Tiffany with a job ad for cam girls, she’s not pimping her sister out or taking advantage of her. She’s suggesting that Tiffany experience the same kind of sexual empowerment that Sabrina has, while getting paid for it. Tiffany is shy at first, but she quickly embraces her new position, becoming the top earner at the somewhat shady company, and forming her own potentially genuine emotional connection with a client named by Bobby (voiced over the phone by alt-comedy star Brett Gelman).
Tiffany’s life isn’t easy, and she deals with judgment from her layabout brother as well as from some of her fellow cam girls (in ways that are informed by racial privilege), but “Jezebel” (which is named for the pseudonym that Tiffany adopts in her cam work) isn’t about shaming sex workers or taking down the adult industry. It’s coming-of-age story about a young black woman who finds power in her sexuality, who is able to deal with men on her own terms as she discovers what turns her on.
Although Perrier has