As the “based on a true story” admonition at the start of films continues to wear out its allure with stories that stretch the truth to an obvious point of implausibility or worse, they feel creatively inhibited by the facts of what happened, the opening title card of Numa Perrier’s “Jezebel” carries increasing weight as the loosely autobiographical film wears on. It’s not because anything too unbelievable happens – it is unfortunately all too believable – but it becomes increasingly remarkable that she has the perspective to see an experience she had so clearly in all its emotional nuances. While the actress/writer/director appears in the film as Sabrina, a phone sex operator who has taken in her two younger sisters while she lies sick in a hospital, she has said that she has more in common with one of the girls, Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), a 19–year-old asked to pull her weight to help pay for the increasingly cramped apartment in Las Vegas that also houses Sabrina’s brother Dom (Stephen Barrington) and her boyfriend Dave (Bobby Field).
In “Jezebel,” it’s the idea of a steady paycheck that’s sexy rather than anything Sabrina may say on the phone, which is why Tiffany doesn’t take offense when Sabrina brings her a want ad for cam girls. This being 1998, there would seem to be no future consequences from taking on such work and poor streaming video quality meant it was even easier to give the illusion of explicit activity that was anything but, so Tiffany seems almost delighted to have the job, especially once she lands a big fish named Bobby during a chat session who is more than happy to pay the price of numerous private shows. Not only is the $15 an hour more money than she’s seen before, but the work proves enriching in an entirely other way as taking on the persona of “Jezebel,” her online name, allows her to be the adult she isn’t quite yet, but clearly wants to be, shouldering more responsibility so others around her don’t have to and coming into her own as a sexual being, enjoying the fantasy at times as much as her clients.
The depiction of sex work is refreshingly neither sensationalized or demonized in “Jezebel” and in general Perrier refrains from ever saying what doesn’t need to be said as far as societal trappings, quietly observing how Sabrina and Tiffany make do with the limited opportunities available to them as young African-American women and having a choice to such potentially demeaning work is a luxury they can’t afford. In moving past that point so gracefully, Perrier engages in a far more fascinating story of how Tiffany is eager to take after Sabrina, who may appear to be her own woman in running the house, yet gives advice that is shaped by the limitations of her own experience, unable to suggest there might be more out there for Tiffany. Thanks to the sensitive performances from Perrier and Tenille, the influence can be seen going both ways as the impressionable Tiffany’s trust in Sabrina proves troubling to the latter when she knows at least to some degree she may be essentially dooming her to live out the same cycle she’s been ensnared by.
Perrier and cinematographer Brent Johnson make the most out of the tight spaces that the characters inhabit such as Sabrina’s spare apartment and Tiffany’s live chat room, but the film has an airiness that’s unexpected, perhaps reflecting Perrier’s ability to create the space for herself to step back to see a moment from her past for what it was in ways both positive and poisonous. While the characters may have to fight for every inch of the lives they carve out for themselves, the filmmaker’s light touch with such combustible material show an ease with pushing into new territory and as her feature debut, “Jezebel” suggests Perrier should be doing it for years to come.