IU Cinema’s very own David Carter is currently at South by Southwest, a major film festival that takes place in Austin, TX every March. This week, David has provided us with exclusive sneak peeks at two of the exciting new films that 2019 will be bringing: Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated Us and, for today’s review, Jezebel, the dazzling debut film of rising filmmaker Numa Perrier.
Numa Perrier wants to tell you her story but she doesn’t want to leave the nasty details out. As the opening minutes role on her debut feature-length film, we see the director, writer and actress moan, coo and tease into a phone, building to a vulgar and feigned climax. All the while, her little sister lays outside her room, pretending to sleep and hearing the whole thing. The title pops up on screen and we have officially begun to explore the frank and intersectional world of sex work, grief and adulthood of Jezebel.
Numa Perrier’s film is adapted from her real-life experience of her time as a sex worker following the death of her adoptive mother and having to provide for her other seven siblings. Here she crafts the story a little differently. Numa plays Sabrina, the older sister to Tiffany (played with incredible confidence by Tiffany Tenille in her feature film debut), who at 19 is already burdened with more than a 19-year-old should be burdened with. Sabrina and Tiffany’s mother is terminally ill, and their cramped apartment is also shared by three other people, including their chronically unemployed brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) and Sabrina’s scum bum partner David (Bobby Field). To add to matters, no one is bringing in any income outside of Sabrina.
It all comes to head when the matriarch of their family finally passes away and drastic changes have to be made to keep them afloat. Sabrina decides that Tiffany needs a job to not only give her some independent income and take the load off of Sabrina, but to give Tiffany some form of personal independence. Sabrina gives her a wig (in one of the key scenes of the film) and puts her in touch with a “cam girl” website and Tiffany begins her journey into womanhood all while the loss of her mother hangs like a spectre in her periphery and she has to navigate the intersection of her own sexual agency and agency as a human being.
The film succeeds so well at getting into how messy and absurd it is (without being absurd itself) to juggle workplace dynamics, performative sexuality vs. sincere sexuality (and how those two things are more mixed up than you’d imagine), the death of naivete, and the dangers of being a woman of color with even just a modest sense of your sexual being. When Tiffany dons her alias “Jezebel,” at first it seems to only be a shield to protect her identity, but as she begins engaging with her co-workers and clients (especially her regular Bobby, played by comedian Brett Gelman), you see that this alias also serves as a sword, something for her to attack her insecurities with.
At one point in the film when sitting in a chatroom, one of the regulars in the chat lets off a racial epitaph that none of Tiffany’s other white co-workers seem to even flinch at. “You don’t think we get called names?” they fire back when she asks for the person to be banned, and her boss Chuck (Dennis Jaffee) treats her reaction like the most unreasonable thing he’s ever heard. These people can respect her as a sex worker and occasionally a woman, but even then they can’t empathize with her specific experience as a young black woman. It’s only later when she wields her sword and shield as “Jezebel” that she can find the strength in herself to demand change. Numa Pierre sculpts this arc slowly but assuredly, with a gentle yet firm hand.
The film’s subtext and character development isn’t the only thing assured here. Tiffany Tenille is doing great work as Tiffany within the film but entrancing to watch as “Jezebel,” turning on the clunky but convincing performative sensuality the way only a 19-year-old discovering themselves can. Numa herself is this great soft-spoken presence in the film. She plays it weary but not exhausted by her circumstance in life. Casting Brett Gelman as a man prone to submission is a stroke of genius. And for what is quite obviously a scrappy production, the sound of the film is still something to admire. Its whole vibe kind of reminds me of something played in a minor on Moog synthesizer. It’s melancholic and full of body.
Don’t let that melancholy scare you off from seeing a movie that also contains moments of small joy and emotional truth. Numa Perrier is going to be one to keep an eye out for in the upcoming years. This is her own personal story and it’s unique. Isn’t that what filmmaking and art is all about in the first place? Bringing these different stories and POV to the forefront to give the form a sense of variety? Jezebel certainly fits that criteria in my opinion. I hope people seek this one out when it plays in their neighborhood. Maybe they will look at a story like this not at arm’s length but from a place of understanding and knowing when it’s over. Maybe you’ll view that woman in front of the camera of your favorite website or private ads a little differently. She’s a professional, but maybe she’s goin’ through it as well.
You can find the teaser trailer for Jezebel here. If you want to keep up to date on Numa Perrier’s projects or Jezebel‘s future, you can follow Perrier on Twitter @missnuma or check out houseofnuma.com and thejezebelmovie.com.
Eager to hear more about David’s SXSW adventures? Check out IU Cinema’s podcast, A Place for Film, on iTunes for special episodes broadcast straight from Austin. For fun live updates, you can also follow the podcast, David, and his co-host Elizabeth Roell on Twitter @iucinemapodcast, @SamuraiFlicks, and @elizabethroell respectively.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racerto The Holy Mountain and everything in between.