Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Lemon (2017)

It’s been well over a decade of overgrown man-children running the show in mainstream comedies, thanks to the improv-heavy landscape sparked by the Judd Apatow crew, and it feels like that aesthetic has now officially spoiled in the public eye (likely because we have now have an overgrown man-child as President). Brett Gelman’s lead role in the grotesque character study Lemon is maybe the curdled the subversion of that trope we need in our lives right now. Selfish, depressive, pretentious about the art of theatre, socially inept, and prone to wetting the bed like a toddler, Gelman’s lead in Lemon is the culmination of the deeply upsetting, aggressively pathetic character work he’s been doing for years. The movie opens with him suffering a break-up with his longtime, blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), which would usually be played for sympathy in a typical modern man-child comedy. Instead, we can hardly blame her for leaving his dysfunctional, narcissistic ass, something that only becomes truer with time as you get to know him better. More disturbing yet, the movie expands its scope to reveal that Los Angeles is full of dysfunctional man-children just like him. He’s pretty much the norm.

To the protagonist’s credit, he at least supports himself financially through regular work. Between acting gigs advertising STD awareness & adult diaper brands, he teaches drama in a black box theater classroom, a space he mostly uses to express his jealous anger over his younger, more successful students. Most of his career envy is focused on a hot shot thespian played by Michael Cera (who looks like he’s secretly auditioning for a Gene Wilder biopic in the role), a relationship that often turns violent under its falsely cordial surface. This professional envy is even more grotesque in how it shows itself in his treatment of Gillian Jacobs’s theatre student, whom he shuts down, cuts off, ignores, and flat out berates in a way he never does with her male classmates. This toxic attitude towards women extends to how he idolizes his past, youthful romances in New York City and how he awkwardly proceeds to date future romantic prospects. It’s all one big, ugly state of juvenile angst that only gets uglier as you learn how it fits in with the similar shortcomings of his family & LA as a larger community.

It takes a moment to get into the stage play rhythms of Lemon’s dialogue, which can be as cruel & cold as anything you’d find in a Solondz or Lanthimos joint. Director Janicza Bravo, who has an extensive background as a costume designer, keeps the film consistently intense as a visual piece, elevating a (deliberately) pedestrian story with the intense lighting & near-artificial environments of a photo shoot. Bravo’s version of LA is just as beautifully curated as it is terrifyingly cruel, a point that’s driven home at a deeply tense Passover Seder I can comfortably call one of the most memorably nightmarish scenes of the year. As collaborators on the script, she & Gellman have skewered the modern comedy man-child trope so thoroughly that their film reads like an indictment of Los Angles as a city & an industry at large. It’s like a much easier to stomach version of the Neil Hamburger vehicle Entertainment in that way, lambasting all sides of the modern narcissistic entertainer’s existential emptiness, whether they’re a juvenile comedian hack or as self-serious thespian. It’s a harshly acidic, visually impressive picture that takes no emotional prisoners in its stage play cruelty & social criticism, cutting much deeper than you might first expect from Gelman’s Greasy Strangler-level awkwardness.

-Brandon Ledet

Joshy (2016)

fourstar

If I were feeling especially lazy, I would substitute writing a full review for Joshy with simply taking a screenshot of its IMDb page with some MS Paint exclamation points added for effect. Jenny Slate! Aubrey Plaza! Brett Gelman! Thomas Middleditch! The dude who made Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)! A dark comedy about a devastatingly depressing weekend getaway, Joshy is stuffed to the gills with niche comedians and always-welcome performers. Even in the final twenty minutes I found myself exclaiming, “I can’t believe they’re in this too!” as new characters entered the frame. What was even more surprising & rewarding than any of the casting choices, however, was the realization that I’d become a fan of the film’s writer-director, Jeff Baena, without even realizing it. Apparently, Baena co-wrote I ♥ Huckabees & helmed his debut feature in the romantic horror comedy Life After Beth, two films I will passionately defend as being far better than their reputations. Just Gary Marshall dropping by as a zombie for a brief cameo was enough to land Life After Beth on my Best of 2014 list and the existential absurdism of Huckabees makes for my favorite David O. Russell film to date, despite that work’s generally divisive reception. After also taking delight in the gleefully bleak Joshy, I can comfortably say that I’m fully sold on Baena as a filmmaker. Only three projects into his career I’m going to count myself among his audience for life.

Five men commemorate an abruptly-ended engagement by honoring a reservation for the bachelor party at a remote cabin in California wine country. As you can probably guess, this situation quickly devolves into my beloved Party Out of Bounds subgenre, ranking up there with High-Rise, The Invitation, and A Bigger Splash as one of my favorite examples of that specific narrative structure I saw all last year. Caught between his friends’ wildly varied ideas of a good time (typified by reckless substance abuse or a Cones of Dunshire-style fantasy role playing game) the would-be bachelor Joshy  (Middleditch) quietly suffers while the world around him loudly crumbles. Joshy has the most readily recognizable reasons to be an emotional wreck, but all of his male compatriots, from the most bombastic bros to the most neurotic wet blankets, are in just as bad of a state. Joshy is first & foremost a film about men who do not comprehend how to deal with their emotions in a productive or honest way. They play & party their way around any direct engagement with their inner turmoil, filling their days with toy guns, drugs, and frivolous contact with a group of women having their own “weird party thing” nearby, all while avoiding any mention of the dark clouds of depression, alcoholism, and suicide that loom over them. At one point, a character even shouts, “It’s not okay to be sad!” to drive the point home. I don’t know if this speaks more about my personal taste or the immense talent of the cast, but this situation actually makes for some of the most hilarious cinematic moments of 2016 for me. Joshy traps itself under immense emotional pressure and the resulting comedy that explodes from that container had me screaming with laughter.

I suppose at first glance Joshy might come off as the clean cut indies & “mumblecore” aftershocks of filmmakers like the Duplass Bros (whom I personally dig) & Joe Swanberg (who appears in a cameo) and it’s possible that being able to enjoy that cinematic style is essential to appreciating this low-key indulgence in gallows humor. The closest comparison point I can conjure for it, though, is the work of Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland, particularly her film Bachelorette. Headland & Baena are both quietly trafficking in a highly specific, deeply affecting mode of caustic, ice bath humor. Their work is currently flying under the radar in terms of wide critical recognition, but I’m floored by how much they’ve been able to accomplish without making grand, sweeping maneuvers. Joshy is a cheap, quiet indie comedy about a few middle aged men who are having an awful time at a party that should have ended before it started. Baena managed to turn that scenario into both a painful exploration about how traditional masculinity leaves people ill-equipped to deal with emotions in a healthy, honest way and one of the funniest situational comedies of the year. I find that balance very impressive and I’m dying to see what he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet