One hazard of the “speak your own truth” corner of indie film is the way the filmmaker’s story supplements or even supplants the one being told on the screen.
Haitian-American writer-director Numa Perrier (“Queen Sugar”) dipped back into her own past for “Jezebel,” a period piece about her days on the ground floor of the Internet sex streaming trade. She tells us a story of struggle and poverty in 1990s Las Vegas, which is just gritty enough to rope us in.
She made her story, which she talked about everywhere, the film’s credentials inviting it to be judged as “authentic” rather than dramatically sound, gritty and engrossing.
Her quasi-titillating tale of online porn, chat rooms and “private sessions” has all the edge rubbed off, making for a movie that pulls its punches, a borderline PG-13 version of a movie that should be hard-R or worse from the get-go.
Sabrina (Perrier herself) is matriarch of a family stuffed into a cheap residence hotel room. But she’s not the mother to little Juju, Tiffany or Dominic. Their mother is dying in the hospital, with only teenaged Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille) adamant about visiting her. The only money coming in is from Sabrina’s phone sex work.
They can’t pay the bills, can’t afford a car. That’s cramping the style of her unemployed boyfriend (Bobby Field), and cutting his boyfriend and brother Dominic’s (Stephen Barrington) cruising and drinking on the strip. Tiffany, who can pass for 19, needs to get a job. Sabrina finds the ad and sends her out the door.
“Just show off a little bit,” she cajoles. “Make a little money.”
It’s 1998, the last days of the dial-up Internet. And entrepreneurs are setting up chat rooms with bikini-clad models who talk dirty enough to those who log in to convince them to credit-card their way to the Promised Land — a private session, like a private dance at a strip club.
Shy, mama’s girl Tiffany has to grow up, and mighty fast, too. Her new sex co-worker Vicky (Zoe Tyson) can show her the ropes and teach her the rules.
“No nudity in the chat room…No personal information, no ‘penetration,'” she’s told.
Vicky’s business-owner brother Chuck is in charge, and his casting routine is worthy of Roger Ailes. Only Chuck has a reason to check out his employees nude.
“You’re gonna need to shave that.”
Vicky ensures that Tiffany, who takes the stage name “Jezebel,” waltzes right into this world as an innocent, primed to take it over by being “a natural.”
This is better than stripping, Vicky reassures her. “The guys can’t touch you. And you don’t even have to see how gross they are in person!”
The story makes Jezebel an instant favorite, even though we have no hint she’s sexually experienced. The pitfalls facing her are both topical (racism) and too typical. One “customer” becomes obsessed.
And how does her newfound sexual precocity impact the home life, where David may get a job but still has the whiff of a perv when he’s around Tiffany/Jezebel.
Eighty-six minutes isn’t enough time to develop much of this, but we can guess where the story would go next. Perrier — most of the female names in the credits sound like porn stage names — scores points with her recreation of “slow” and “delay” issues of the net in ’98. But we don’t see how the actresses interact with their clients (no screen they can read or camera they’re acting to is shown).
The work? A little back-stabbing, a little angling for better pay, some “on the side” cash — but otherwise, it’s all presented as borderline good, clean fun — giggling over “regulars” who finish their “private sessions” quickly, the ridiculous (no sound online) but not funny enough “acting” the “girl on girl” scenarios they have to play up to give the people what they want.
But when Tiffany burbles “That was so easy,” she’s getting at what is the rub here (ahem). This is so perfunctory and edge-free that it plays as incomplete, a movie “talked” into great reviews by hearing the filmmaker’s personal connection to the story.
Does “Jezebel” speak for itself? A little, but not nearly enough.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual content
Cast: Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier, Zoe Tyson, Bobby Field and Dennis Jaffee
Credits: Written and directed by Numa Perrier. An Array/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:26