★★★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 since been championed by the likes of Ava DuVernay (she directed an episode of DuVernay’s OWN series “Queen Sugar”), she clearly had a tiny budget for “Jezebel,” and it shows in the limited locations and the sometimes clumsy depiction of online communications. Perrier favors long dialogue scenes that can sometimes drag, although the performances are generally strong, and Tenille effectively carries the movie. There’s relatively little dramatic conflict, which is refreshing in the way that Perrier avoids the cliches of this kind of story, but can also make the stakes feel fairly minor, even though the characters are always just on the verge of finding themselves out on the street.
The plot mostly meanders, and the movie doesn’t reach a climax so much as it just stops. It’s not necessary for Tiffany to experience an epiphany about her life or to overcome some huge obstacle, but the lack of resolution is a bit frustrating. Still, it fits with the low-key slice-of-life tone of the movie, recalling indie favorites like Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” in its depiction of everyday life on the margins, and it’s easy to imagine Tiffany and her family moving forward with their lives, continuing to struggle but also finding moments of fulfillment and connection along the way.