Director: Ben Hozie
Stars: Julia Fox, Peter Vack, Buddy Duress
At the tail end of 2019, Julia Fox put herself on the map in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. Fittingly enough for PVT CHAT, the online thirst for Fox was… notable. But that film also showed the world that she was a fine performer, a talent to watch out for. It is in that spirit that Ben Hozie’s film initially intrigues. And, with its focus on the world of camming and cyber culture, as timely and enticingly salacious a new release as one might have hoped for in this bleak mid-winter. With the pandemic pushing many young women toward the likes of OnlyFans to make it through the endless months, there’s a wealth of questions to be posed about the nature of the business. Of empowerment vs exploitation and so forth.
The film’s title card announces it as “A romance about freedom fantasy death friendship”, and by the time we reach it we’ve already witnessed (the appropriately named) Jack (Peter Vack) masturbating to the point of ejaculation, hunched over a laptop in his dimly lit New York apartment. Goading him is camgirl Scarlet (Fox). This is a romance of a different stripe. A more distanced, modern, transactional kind. One built on fantasies perpetuated on either side of the webcam.
Jack has an addictive personality that he funnels into an extremely-online lifestyle, chiefly orbiting around gambling and camming sites. While his ‘relationship’ with Scarlet is bound-up in her fetishistic output, he ‘tips’ her to be real with him; to have a conversation. Tellingly, in that conversation, he himself isn’t truthful, bragging to her about an imagined job as an innovative app designer. Jack lives a spartan existence. He’s behind on his rent. Any financial gains he does make are channeled straight back into his habits. Scarlet has her online persona, but Jack’s entire personality is a fraud that he maintains in their off-kilter exchanges.
Working on an evident micro-budget, Hozie utilises handheld camerawork to accentuate a series of claustrophobic living spaces and warped exteriors. His Brooklyn is a squalid mess of untalented artists, bohemian motormouths and fakers. PVT CHAT has a low-rent Paul Schrader vibe; a mingling of fascination, arousal and unmasked disdain.
In the main, what’s presented is a deeply unflattering character portrait of a desperate, disingenuous and pretentious loser who jerks off into a copy of Ulysses. It’s critiques of this personality type are valid, but they’re not particularly new or inspired. The low-rent slasher was prodding this territory 40 years ago, and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake gave it a far more ambitious recent study. When Jack thinks he’s caught a glimpse of the real Scarlet at Chinatown bodega, he immediately turns stalker. When he can’t get hold of her for a private session, he scrolls through his own album of screen-grabs. Damningly, he doesn’t really need her presence at all. She is wholly objectified in his eyes.
Vack successfully – perhaps too successfully – makes Jack an obnoxious presence; an arrogant wannabe fuck-boy with a shit-eating grin. He doesn’t exactly elicit our sympathies. And that’s okay. But it quickly becomes apparent that he’ll be our primary focus, and that the online sex industry will be viewed solely through his singularly horny perspective. It’s something of a let down, frankly, as the voyeur’s gaze is perhaps the more shallow avenue through which this topic could possibly be explored. For anyone looking for a little genuine insight, it’s fortunate that Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam and Sean Baker’s Starlet are out there; two undervalued films that pry into this growing subculture from the perspective of those doing the work.
Things get more promising in the second half when Hozie finally flips things so that we can contextualise Scarlet. But even then, PVT CHAT frames her through the eyes of the men surrounding her, and the pervading impression is of just another whore. Fox is a trooper, but the material rather lets her down. Those tuning in to see her Mr Skin clips will get their wish and then some, but if these are the main viewers that Hozie’s film intends to placate, then it isn’t really advancing much of anything.
The final scene pushes forward a more interesting conversation about how internet pornography is warping, even shaping our real-world sexual interactions, but its too little too late and it ends, fittingly, without any sense of fulfillment or climax.