‘PVT Chat’ is the Extremely Online Love Story We All Deserve (FILM REVIEW)

Grade: B

It’s an odd ability in certain films that present a portrait of 21st-century life so stark that it comes across as downright dystopian. PVT Chat, and its meditation on love and trust in the digital age, is one of them.

The story centers on Jack (Peter Vack), a pale, awkward New Yorker who spends most of his time holed up in his tiny apartment. Alternating between online blackjack to make money, and chats with cam-girls to spend it, writer/director Ben Hozie gives little in terms of empathetic traits. Even if the visual of him using a dirty t-shirt to wipe cum off the floor just in front of his laptop is, at least, uncomfortably relatable.

As Jack continues to cycle through online cam-girls, he eventually comes across Scarlett (Julia Fox), a dom whose entire routine is berating her customers for money. While he’s willfully submissive to her routine, he portrays himself as a tech wunderkind on the verge of creating a thought-based internet. After having her cigarette put out on his tongue a few times, virtually speaking, Jack implores Scarlet for an earnest conversation. At least, as earnest as a conversation can be when money is offered up as part of the incentive.

Scarlet, in turn, talks about her life in San Francisco, her waning interest in being a cam-girl, and her art. Naturally, Jack’s fixation on Scarlet grows into an obsession. While it’s strongly implied that Jack wasn’t exactly a skilled gadabout before, he’s soon unable to function in literally any capacity without Scarlet on a laptop screen smoking cigarettes and routinely berating him.

Eventually, while at a convenience store, Jack sees someone from behind who he believes to be Scarlet. With no inclination (or social candor) to approach her, he instead follows her down the rainy streets of her Chinatown neighborhood — always at a distance — until he finds her apartment.

Normally, this would have set the template for a cliche-filled story about dangerous obsession. Instead, PVT Chat goes in a much different, much more frantic direction. Like Jack, Scarlet isn’t exactly vilified when her life slowly comes into focus, but she’s not entirely redeemed. It turns out she’s running her own scheme beyond the cam girl gig, which is predicated on the assumption that Jack’s the wealthy tech genius he claims to be, while the fantasies constructed by both Jack and Scarlet start to unravel IRL.

While Vack portrays Jack’s desperation and disengagement convincingly, Fox, the breakout star of last year’s Uncut Gems, delivers a timely, seemingly effortless reminder of her offbeat charisma. Though Hozie doesn’t leave any principle characters to root for (but, to be fair, none that you’re outright rooting against), it does attempt to normalize these… less-conventional relationships and how people find them. Despite so much of its story taking place online, his vérité style gives an almost granular sense of his perception of the real world: dimly lit streets, cramped, hollow apartments, and flickering resolution of computer screens that dominate all of our lives.

PVT Chat is in theaters now and will be available on VOD Feb. 9

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