PVT Chat is streaming on digital platforms.

Despite the social ravages of Covid-19, it could be argued that we’ve never been more connected. Technology enables us to reach out across the globe, but just how authentic is that digital interaction? It’s a question that writer-director Ben Hozie explores with uninhibited candour, knowing satire and various degrees of success in PVT Chat, which was shot before the pandemic but takes on a sharp resonance now that we have been forced to lead our lives online.

From the moment we meet New Yorker Jack (Peter Vack), it’s clear he is profoundly lonely – even if he maintains that his isolated existence is a lifestyle choice. Jack pays for his webcam sex habit with the money he makes as an online gambler, spending most of his cash on his favourite dominatrix camgirl Scarlet (Julia Fox). They soon seem to be developing a connection, but how much is real?

Not much, it seems. Jack poses as a wealthy entrepreneur and, though Scarlet claims she lives in San Fransisco, Jack is convinced he spots her in a Chinatown bodega. She denies it, but says that if he snaps a photo of her in New York she will accompany him on a trip to Paris.

Peter Vack as Jack and Julia Fox as Scarlet in PVT Chat (2020)

While the development of this pseudo-relationship is at the heart of the narrative, Hozie’s screenplay is concerned with not closeness but alienation. Everyone in Jack’s orbit is struggling to connect the dots: one friend is desperate to find the cash to pay for his son’s tuition; an old flame expresses her political views through art that is more divisive than expressive. There’s a sharply satirical edge to the way that Hozie approaches these moments but, together, they paint a sobering portrait of lives adrift.

Unlike her counterpart in Daniel Goldhaber’s similarly themed Cam (2018), Scarlet has agency and empathy. Portrayed with gusto by Fox – who has worked as a dominatrix – she morphs from two-dimensional manic pixie pleasure girl to three-dimensional character after wrestling the POV from Jack midway. Despite her commanding professional demeanour she is equally lost, stuck in a job that was only ever meant to be temporary.

Julia Fox as Scarlet in PVT Chat (2020)

This listlessness colours the film’s visuals, which are muted and claustrophobic. New York’s gleaming spires, monuments to capitalist optimism, are nowhere to be seen. Hozie also serves as cinematographer (and editor), and his grungy handheld camera skulks low along the grubby streets. This is a place not of dreams but of survival, grabbed opportunities and pure dumb luck. It’s strongly reminiscent of the work of Benny and Josh Safdie, who used the city as a backdrop for the hand-to-mouth quests of desperate men in both Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019). Echoes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in the rain-drenched neon also seem entirely deliberate.

After the online fireworks, Scarlet and Jack’s eventual meeting in the flesh is something of a damp squib. Despite Scarlet’s earlier vivid sexual fantasy, which involved Jack taking the lead, she’s the one who assumes authority, pretending affection to fleece him of all his cash. A final encounter in an anonymous motel sees Jack unable to maintain an erection. Reality, it seems, can’t match fantasy. Yet, with digital artifice stripped away, the pair are at least left with the potential for something more real.

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