Tony Award-winning playwright Sarah Jones (Bridge & Tunnel) has developed and performed in several one-person shows over her career. They’ve explored immigrants, prejudice, community, feminism, sex work, and more, tackling complex topics with humor without losing insight. Inspired by people in her life, Jones developed one such show, Sell/By/Date, as a means of exploring the sex industry through a variety of perspectives she would embody throughout the course of the performance. The program ran through the 2016 -2017 theater season and makes the jump from stage to screen, written by Jones and David Goldblum (Helix) and directed by Jones, the theatrical edition of Sell/Buy/Date had its world premiere at SXSW 2022 and now screens during the 2022 SFFILM Festival. How does someone take a one-person show and make it into a film? Of all the options one might take, Jones opts to create a docu-drama, one which brings together the scripted nature of a traditional feature with the freedom and spontaneity of a traditional documentary. The end result is a touch mixed, but let there be no doubt that little emotional power is removed by the hybrid storytelling.
Due to the hybrid nature of Sell/Buy/Date, here’s a quick summary to help orient yourself:
Upon the conclusion of her one-woman show Sell/Buy/Date, Jones awakens the next morning to discover that the Internet has erupted with the news of the upcoming Sell/Buy/Date film. She has her supporters, yet some think that her perspective is invalid as it doesn’t come from her lived experience but is appropriated from others while some others think she’s terrible for supporting sex workers and yet another group is angry because of the dangers the decriminalization of sex work poses. Unsure of what to do, she goes and speaks with individuals within the sex worker community, those who have left it, and those trying to leave it, gaining new information on the very complex issue, all while addressing her own interpersonal issues. Though she desires to take her art to the next level, to have it been seen by theatrical audiences everywhere versus a theatre audience in New York City, there’s no denying the lack of clear-cut answer for the difficult question before her: do you make the movie or not?
Part of the magic of Sell/Buy/Date is that Jones is portraying several characters at once and, because this is a movie, they can share the screen at the same time. There’s Lorraine (a Jewish grandmother), Bella (white college sophomore with a sex work studies major), Nereida (half Dominican, half Puerto Rican femme rights advocate), and Rashid (male entrepreneur). Each one brings their own specific perspective and voice, sometimes advocating for Jones and, just as frequently, against her. This allows for the internal debate to take place naturally out in the open, something that feels taken straight from the stage. Given the little bit we learn about Jones’s own family history, the characters feel less like caricature and more like aspects of herself, though that’s mostly conjecture as we are not introduced to the people in her life who inspired these characters. We do meet her mother, Leslie (an OB/GYN), and learn a bit about her family tree through exposition, but, largely, the characters appear less as individuals outside of Jones and more as physical manifestations of various perspectives jockeying for position in her mind. When not used to debate various positions in favor or against making Sell/Buy/Date, the characters also serve to create segues into or out of the interviews. Sometimes it’s more serious, as when Bella introduces Nevada Chicken Ranch owner Alice Little as someone to speak to or Nereida pushes Jones to speak with transgender Latina woman activist/organizer Esperanza Fonseca, and other times it’s more silly, as Nereida gets tongue-tied upon the “accidental” meeting with actor/activist Rosario Dawson (The Mandalorian). By leaning on these traditional narrative elements, it’s easy to forget that Sell/Buy/Date, as we watch it, is, in fact, a documentary, not a feature film exploring the pros and cons of sex work and modern feminism. This is often a plus, though there is some dialogue between characters toward the start that frequently feels unnatural in the way that some topics wouldn’t have to be so heavily repeated in a typical conversation with someone. It’s like the way films and television shows have characters identify their relationships (“little brother,” “big sister”) when it shouldn’t be necessary in real life. Outside of this, there’s a nice balance in the way these scripted moments support the unscripted ones.
Despite the obvious staging of one interview to the next within the constraints of the overall narrative, the interviews themselves don’t take on the same feeling. Rather, each one feels as natural as any other talking head interview. The real difference here is that rather than have each person in a similar talking head-style setup, each conversation takes place in a more natural setting for the individual. Both Little and Fonseca are introduced as participating in conferences with opposing perspectives within the same event location, yet Little is shown taking Jones on a tour of her business while Fonseca chats with Jones in a hotel room. There’s a big difference between the two locations, the subtext of which becomes plain when one considers the information both of the individuals impart upon Jones. Each interview location offers its own graces, its own benefits, while also highlighting the discrepancies of the opposition’s viewpoints. Credit to Jones for speaking not just with local New York City sex workers with a large online following, but making a point to even speak with Indigenous Peoples of Nevada who broaden the scope of discussion beyond the U.S.A. and even North America, bringing to light issues of decriminalization that even the most-staunch pro-legislation of sex work would be hard-pressed to object. With each interview, whether famous celebrity, known sex worker or activist, or person with lived experience in the trade, Jones presents to the audience an ever-increasingly complex set of arguments which would make the fiercest feminist question their stance. Given that Jones, as a character, is presented as living an uncertain life, perhaps as an avatar for the audience, the documentary succeeds in offering as complete a picture of the complexity as it can within a 97-minute feature.
Where Sell/Buy/Date falters a tad is in the scripted portion of the narrative. From the beginning, Jones makes it clear that her life is a bit of a mess, so much so that she missed the scheduled public announcement of the movie being made. To play this up throughout the film, there’s a not-so-subtle issue with her manager and an on-going storyline regarding her late sister. As a storyteller, the way Jones explores the relationship between the project and her sister makes a great deal of sense, but comes to too fast a conclusion given the slow rev up to the moment. Conversely, a great deal of humor is mined out of the issues with her manager, except they seem to lead to nowhere. Neither are a serious drag on the efficacy of Sell/Buy/Date’s exploration of sex work, yet one can’t help but feel like one narrative (the manager) impedes Jones’s personal agency for the sake of laughs while the other (the sister) offers the emotional catalyst that may have created Sell/Buy/Date in the first place but is given too little time in its revelation moment to create the impact intended.
Given that there was a real public outcry with the announcement of Sell/Buy/Date that saw Laverne Cox leave her role as producer, I applaud Jones for tackling the controversy of public opinion head-on. Not only that, but she did it while maintaining the integrity of her original show through the use of the characters as a means of bringing up other perspectives and ideas. Sell/Buy/Date may not change minds on the pro or against sex work factions, but what it most certainly has the power to do is bring up just how complex the issues are. That one person’s lived experience is not the only experience. That living your truth can, actually, hurt someone else if you’re not willing to listen to their truth, too. Being an ally, being consistent at that, is hard to do, especially when one doesn’t understand the bigger picture. If nothing else, audiences are going to come away realizing that what they believe may not actually be the truth. That’s something Jones can very much be proud of.
Screening during the 2022 SFFILM Festival.
For more information, head to the official Sell/Buy/Date SFFILM Festival film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.