Another non-horror entry from Fantasia Film Festival , PVT Chat is a bold love story for the digital age as writer, director Ben Hozie brings us a film about loneliness and relationships where we see a lonely internet gambler and a cam girl start to bond online.
What follows is an exploration into the nature of relationships, capitalism and altruism and how they might all be linked. The obvious correlation being that our lonely internet gambler Jack, played by Peter Vack, has to pay for cam girl Scarlet’s time. Hozie regularly reminds us with cut-away still image panels of credits being spent that the relationship we see unfolding is transactional. In fact, PVT Chat, spends a lot of time suggesting that every relationship there’s ever been is exploitative in some way.
As a result you quickly come to realise that the love story that unfolds is anything but a conventional one. We see Scarlet, played by Julia Fox in her second featured role following Uncut Gems, begin to drop her online persona when interacting with Vack, revealing she’s secretly a budding artist and as a result setting up a ‘man rescues sex-worker from sex-work’ narrative that we’ve seen countless times before.
But in a neat narrative twist, achieved by Hozie’s use of shifting point-of-views as the film progresses, focussing on Jack to begin with, and then switching to Scarlet, it is revealed that Scarlet may not be the helpless and exploited sex-worker after all and as a result the film starts making you wonder, who is exploiting who here?
That’s one of the great things about PVT Chat, that it doesn’t judge sex work at all. Scarlet enjoys her job as a cam girl and isn’t portrayed as exploited in that regard. However, it is rather cleverly revealed that Scarlet is being exploited, but in a different way. Her current boyfriend Duke – Keith Poulson playing the perfect unaware asshole, is sponging off of both her money to fund his amateur drama production, but also her personal life as unwitting inspiration for a character in the production.
And so the stage is set for a love story within which you aren’t sure if the genuine connection we see these two characters forming through computer screens is a real connection or not. Is Jack using Scarlet for comfort to help his loneliness and help him recover from the suicide of his roommate and is Scarlet using Jack, who she thinks is rich, as a source of income for her partner, or are they actually falling for each other? This leads to a third act that is a rollercoaster of surprising moments that sees the truth land on almost all of these options at one point or another.
Hozie seems to have a lot to say about real connections in the digital age. With the exception of Scarlet and Jack, almost every other relationship in the film is tertiary, superficial and hollow, one particularly great example of this I enjoyed was the painter’s son being immersed in augmented reality gaming rather than interacting with his father in any meaningful way.
Heavy criticism is also levied against stimulation addiction, as a result of most human emotion now being processed through computer screens. Hozie considers online gambling or online sex-work as the same thing as social media and uses their inclusion in this film to highlight the issues with these things replacing actual healthy stimulation.
PVT Chat is also, in general, not a conventional movie for one glaring reason, which many people will realise from the very first scene. In a rather bold move Hozie opens his film with a scene in which Scarlet, via a webcam, is a dominatrix to Jack as he, completely graphically, masturbates.
This is one of many scenes in which the two leads take part in un-simulated masturbation. Hozie is keen here to smash the taboo of fully erect full frontal nudity and eroticism in film, but is also attempting to portray sex and masturbation as the everyday and normal thing that it is.
Purely for this reason, Peter Vack and Julia Fox’s performances are incredibly brave, but aside from this they’re also excellent throughout the film. Their chemistry is obvious and effortless, both with the divide of a computer screen and in person, and they really come across as flawed, lonely and real people who find in each-other a kindred spirit. If people thought that Fox was a breakout performer in Uncut Gems, she really cements her shine here.
It’s their performances that make PVT Chat so enjoyable and the more overtly sexual sequences work, we begin to will Scarlet and Jack together because it’s clear they need each other. As a result it’s a satisfying journey to see the film open with a lonely, distanced masturbation scene and come full circle by ending with an in-person, intimate and highly erotic sex scene. If you remove all of the stimulation addiction that comes from screens, you get real gratification and real physical connection, an apt message indeed.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here