Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is a film that never takes the easy route of eroticising its subject for the audience."

Sex cam work is often portrayed as shameful, something only desperate women do and something that is bound to lead to unhappiness, yet - at least prior to the passing of the SESTA/FOSTA Act in the US - it revolutionised sex work, making it much safer by enabling people who had been out on the streets to earn a living from a virtual space. Numa Perrier's beautifully observed drama Jezebel tells the story of one young woman whose life is transformed by it in a positive way.

Perrier plays Sabrina, a phone sex worker with a young daughter, deadbeat boyfriend and home full of hangers-on to support. She has also made space for her younger sister Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), whose life as a full time carer abruptly changes when their ailing mother is hospitalised. At the same time as dealing with the complicated emotions this brings, Tiffany needs to find a new way to make a living, so Sabrina persuades her to pursue an opportunity in sex camming, for which purpose the younger woman reinvents herself as Jezebel.

The taboo of taking one's clothes off in a forbidden space is always scariest the first time. Jezebel hesitates when doing it in front of the boss, but only briefly. Starting the same day means there's no time for worry to build up, and the boss' sister, who also performs there, takes her through the basics in a friendly and supportive way. To be clear, there's no actual sex involved in this, though certain acts are simulated - with much laughter when the clients aren't there - in order to increase earnings. As Jezebel comes to understand how much of it is about trickery and play, she loses her fear - but it's as she starts to take control of her own sexuality that she really finds her strength, both at work and elsewhere in life.

This is a film that never takes the easy route of eroticising its subject for the audience. Yes, it includes upper body nudity and we see the women at the cam business posing for clients, but their activity is very much presented as work, with a lot of humour at the expense of clients who take it seriously. Nevertheless, Jezebel gets to know some of her clients and forms a particular bond with a foot fetishist called Bobby (voiced by Brett Gelman), who changes the way she thinks about herself.

It's not all fun. A scene in which Jezebel is confronted with racism and has to try and explain to her white colleagues why a particular slur is not equivalent to the misogynistic insults they take in their stride is tough to watch, and has implications right across the service sector. There's an acknowledgement of the nastier side of the internet and the way that the economic interests of the people least likely to face serious abuse there - also the people who have the most money and social status to begin with - act to resist attempts to fix it. We also see the strife that develops as the relationship between Jezebel and Sabrina changes, and the sniping the former has to put up with from the men in the household.

Despite all this, this is a warm-hearted and positive story about a young woman taking control of her life, and it's refreshing to see such stories being told about working class women in stigmatised professions. Shot close-up to emphasise the cramped spaces in which its heroine lives and works, it invites the viewer to share her delight as the world opens up to her.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2019
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Jezebel packshot
In the last days of her mother's life, 19 year old Tiffany crashes with five family members in a Las Vegas studio apartment. In order to make ends meet, she gets her older sister, a phone sex operator, to introduce her to the world of internet fetish cam girls.

Director: Numa Perrier

Writer: Numa Perrier

Starring: Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier, Brett Gelman

Year: 2019

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


SXSW 2019

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