There’s intimacy. And then there’s claustrophobia. Numa Perrier, the writer-director-co-star of “Jezebel,” delivers both in her nuanced debut feature. The semi-autobiographical story of a young woman finding her way as a “camgirl” in the world-wide-web frontier of the late-’90s adult entertainment biz premiered at last year’s SXSW film fest. It was picked up by Ava Duvernay’s Array Releasing, which aims to support female- and minority-made independent cinema, and which has arranged select arthouse screenings around the country, in addition to making the film available to stream via Netflix.
Newcomer Tiffany Tenille portrays 19-year-old Tiffany, who lives with older sis Sabrina (Perrier), resentful brother Dominic (Stephen Harrington), and a little niece. Also sharing the crowded one-bedroom of a low-budget suites motel is Sabrina’s white boyfriend David (Bobby Field). With his fussy tobacco pipe and faux patriarch grumblings, he enters the room like he owns the joint. Turns out he barely pitches in. Underemployment is a theme. (The cramped quarters are set in the Las Vegas motel writer-director Perrier where lived with her older sister in the ’90s.)
As the film opens, the siblings’ mother is ailing. When she dies, an already tenuous economic situation becomes more so. Sabrina asks Tiffany to contribute to the household. A phone-sex worker, Sabrina has an idea how: “Internet modeling.” Jezebel become Tiffany’s nom de guerre. The way that happens makes for one of the many scenes between the sisters that sways between touching and troubling. Is Sabrina’s attention deep support? Or is she grooming her younger sister in the life, her life? Or both?
Tiffany’s early enthusiasm is dampened when she has to strip for her soon-to-be boss; Tenille’s downcast eyes make sad her character’s discomfort of this unexpected nude review. But the scene also speaks to Tiffany’s initial naivete. What business did she think she was getting into, exactly? But she proves a quick study. A later scene of Tiffany negotiating terms with Chuck after a girl-on-girl porn outfit approaches her is as admirable as Jo March’s wrangling with Mr. Dashwood over book rights in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” In other words, it’s a triumph within a circumscribed world.
We could treat Tiffany’s career track as a reflection of the seismic shift in her sense of self after her mother’s death — grief’s byproduct. But Perrier doesn’t indulge easy theories about Tiffany’s journey as the only black girl on the fetish site run by a brother-sister duo, Chuck (Dennis Jaffee) and Vicky (Zoe Taylor). Quickly a hit with the sticky-keyboard set, Tiffany forges a private-room relationship with “Bobby” (Brett Gelman).
Partially set in a hardscrabble hotel, “Jezebel” tempts comparisons with 2017’s lauded “The Florida Project.” Like that drama, this one casts its humanist gaze upon its denizens without high-horse pronouncements. It has a street-level sense of place. In the midst of this rough milieu, Tenille’s performance beckons and rewards. We root; we worry.
Perrier thoughtfully torques the many moods of Tiffany’s liberation. Sitting on a mattress on the floor, typing her responses into an impossibly large keyboard, Tiffany starts to feel and explore her power over Bobby — smiling, flirting, playing a role, and then not. The question of how far she can (will?) take her newfound power is part of the pull of “Jezebel.”
That “Jezebel” is making its way around the country and will begin streaming is a sign of DuVernay’s pull and her commitment to black creatives. Tiffany’s journey has its ascents and plunges. Perrier and her star keep us caring where it will end: peak or valley?