It’s a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy lies to girl, girl instructs boy to lick her boy via webcam, boy gets more than he bargained for. In PVT Chat, the web-savvy neo-noir from writer/director Ben Hozie, the extent to which interpersonal relationships have been warped by the inundation of immediate gratification is put on full (frontal) display.
The boy in question is Peter Vack’s Jack, an online gambling-addicted New Yorker who spends his time (and every spare dollar he has) on camgirl dominatrix Scarlet (Julia Fox). It’s all fun and games and virtual cigarette burns until Jack spots Scarlet — who told him she lives in San Francisco — in a Chinatown bodega. Though he loses sight of her on the streets, he can’t shake the chance encounter. Spurred by a combination of loneliness and obsession, Jack’s life starts to revolve around Scarlet even more than it already did.
He lies and tells her that he has a lucrative tech job and plans to take her to Paris. She seems to reciprocate the interest. Surely that’s just a sign that she’s just good at her job. Or is it more than that…
Not at all surprisingly, PVT Chat hinges on the limits of fantasy. Jack starts out as another customer, but soon, being told what to do by the woman on the other side of the video chat doesn’t cut it anymore. When he becomes increasingly suspicious that Scarlet also lives in New York, the fantasy revolves around meeting her in person and fulfilling all the stories he’s made up about what he could provide for her. What could go wrong?
For her part, Scarlet is similarly dissatisfied with her reality, enough to be intrigued by the customer who talks a big game. Of course, as Jack repeatedly asserts, all relationships are transactional, and it doesn’t take long for lines to be blurred in the game of exploitation and for both parties to get in over their heads.
Indeed, Jack’s nihilistic ruminations about the unavoidability of exploitation serve as a thesis for the film. One that it is not at all subtle about. In early scenes, Jack wanders around Manhattan looking for something to desire. He settles on a rub-and-tug massage parlor. As he careens through the streets, we see New York from his perspective. Both the character and the wide-angle camera lens leer at the surroundings and passers-by, turning everything in sight into an object of his gaze. It’s a world quite literally warped by obsessive desire. Everyone around Jack is evaluated through the criteria of what they can do for him.
As the sadboy pervert protagonist, Vack captures a combination of despair and hope — he’s the kind of tragic character who actually believes the lies he tells. He also delivers an uninhibited performance worthy of commendation. But the star of the show is undeniably Julia Fox. As with her breakout role in Uncut Gems, her magnetic screen presence rivals film industry veterans. Fox has a unique charisma and an endlessly watchable quality that can automatically energize and enrich any scene she’s in.
And enrich she does, often far beyond the material. There are third-act developments in the film that feel frustratingly pat. Complex and often contradictory meditations on human connections in our modern era are boiled down to rather simplistic terms. Scarlet is especially lacking in complexity. At first, this haziness works as a marker of her mystery. Her job necessitates malleability, so naturally, she should be hard to define. But sooner or later it starts to appear that there just isn’t as much depth to obscure as initially assumed. The murkiness of her character ends up signifying nothing more than a gifted actress treading water in a shallow pool.
I would love to cite this as intentional, to suppose that Scarlet’s underdeveloped character is a commentary on the fact that Jack has no true desire to know her — a critical indictment of his own obtuseness. But I just don’t buy that. The film indulges far too deeply in fantasy past the point where it should display self-awareness. Jack’s developments are too glib to signify that he has either gained knowledge or refuted it for the sake of comfort over change. As a character, he need not grow, but with a film that has nothing meaningful to say about lack of growth, the climactic moments are bloated but empty. There’s a slickness to Jack’s philosophizing, but ultimately, the weightiest concept the film feels confident in expressing is that, like, we’re all exploiting each other in some way, man.
Beyond characters, the film struggles to bring thematic resonance to its narrative developments. In place of this, there are a number of allusions that the film calls upon to navigate the thorniness of a world where reality and fantasy overlap and intersect both online and IRL. Think Eyes With Shut with the Safdie brothers’ handheld aesthetics. Or Christopher Nolan’s Following with the unhinged vibes of a Harmony Korine movie. Or imagine Steve McQueen’s Shame as a late Terrence Malick movie. Throw in a dash of Under The Silver Lake just for the hell of it.
The point is, there are a lot of movies that PVT Chat exists in conversation with. But there’s a difference between invoking other films in order to contribute something meaningful and drawing on what’s been done as a shorthand for meaning. The film has compelling moments, particularly early on, but the parts never cohere into a greater whole or a satisfying, self-aware finale. As a result, the other films it calls to mind serve less as enriching pairings and more as a list of movies you’d be better off watching instead.
To its credit, the film features two vulnerable performances from Vack and Fox that can set it apart. Not to mention the salaciously explicit content is especially sure to make waves. But daring exercises, strong performances, and a wealth of references can only go so far. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough here in terms of character to consider the film to be more inspired than it is derivative or more worthwhile than it is frustrating.