What to Watch Verdict
What 'PVT CHAT' intends and how it executes are two vastly different conversations, the latter of which completely diminishes the former.
💻 Desires to empower sex workers.
💻 For every attempt at empowerment, another step backward.
💻 "Lackluster" as "Authenticity."
💻 Murky character representations.
💻 Does not do what it thinks it does.
In PVT CHAT, musician Ben Hozie writes and directs a sticky Shakespearian romance reminiscent of Vincent Gallo trying his hand at microbudget New York City formulas. Its viewpoints on sex work and online interactions attempt to embolden chatroom dominatrixes past browser window dressings. Still, abhorrable male characters sell the film’s protagonist cam girl exponentially short. Scripted views on consensual euphoria flaunt and champion unashamed openness, but are marred by the predatory, obsessive, bullshit-artist sucker who’s given pass after pass for downright illegal actions. In a different narrative? Julia Fox’s (pre-filmed) follow-up to Uncut Gems would, indeed, empower a sex worker who's devoid of judgment, someone not forced into the profession by dangerous circumstances (or any other prudish stereotype that exists).
Unfortunately, PVT CHAT isn’t the film to navigate these conversations. It’s not even left as a comment on the same Reddit thread. Woody Allen distracted by its woody, if we're being cute with wordplay.
Peter Vack plays online blackjack professional “Blackjack” Jack (lol), who’s being evicted from his apartment presumably for late rent checks. Maybe that’s because he spends all hours gambling money away in virtual casinos and masturbating to expensive private cam girls. One particular performer, Scarlet (Julia Fox), has earned his eternal devotion. Jack is Scarlet’s "slave," but he seeks a real-world relationship connection beyond the webcam and monetary exchanges. That’s when Jack believes he’s spotted Scarlet in Chinatown, after stalking her tracks from bodegas to alleyways. Can Jack convince Scarlet to meet and woo his cyber love? Or is he just another metropolitan creeper whose social cues have been eroded by digital interactions?
It’s more that PVT CHAT is only willing to start scintillating dialogues before sinking into the almost slapstick lampoonery of dramatic intentions. Jack’s lifestyle — influenced by a heroin-addict roommate's death — sees all relationships as inherently transactional, which is symbolized by his blackjack sessions (legit, his only income) and jack-off sessions with Scarlet. Hozie uses this cynicism to comment on how society, through social media and DM interactions, has shed the perception of properness upheld by more upstanding-in-public generations. Especially now, in a pandemic quarantine that’s kept me trapped within apartment walls for nearly twelve months, PVT CHAT feels inescapably relevant. The stinger here is, Jack chooses this secluded isolation.
PVT CHAT's sexually explicit nature is supposed to promote freedom, showing what some might label as “graphic” self-pleasure scenes, from the fully-erect Veck to stripped-nude Fox. A commentary on seeking cigarette-burn indulgences explores the “safety” of online anonymity or barriers. That said, the gratuitous nature in which the film indulges Jack’s over-and-over wanking becomes self-masturbatory in its execution, given how Jack is never punished for his increasingly alarming actions. For whatever grounds Hozie breaks by daring to suggest sex workers like Scarlet coax men to climax in skin-tight leather jumpsuits for no other reason than it makes them feel good or to thrive independently, Jack’s repetitive self-gratification without consequence becomes this tone-deaf, deeply frustrating recurrence. In the same ways Hozie attempts to empower Fox’s performance, he doubles-back in the conceptualization of Jack’s night stalking, breaking-and-entering, online harassment, none of which prevent his “happiness.” Scarlet continues tantalizing Jack. Recourse is but a fantasy.
Even worse, no character is allowed a developed, sweeping arc. You’re not watching PVT CHAT for production quality or technical merits. Hozie is restricted to camera quality not unlike home movies from your childhood birthdays, dull lighting is au naturel, close-up framing can be intimate yet ugly (New York City, bay-bee), and the experience has an amateurish microbudget dustiness. Sometimes a positive, enhancing the “authenticity” of normalcy. Most times voyeuristically awkward, as the camera forcibly presses into conflicts that don’t even conflict because Julia feigns “anger” for a second, then either starts making out with her shitty bar-ower boyfriend or runs back to Jack’s all-tech-bro-talk bluster. I never felt any actor's investment, who posture like they, themselves, are trying to understand the characters they’re portraying, right after another orgasm.
I found PVT CHAT to be an unpleasant, flaccid Romeo and Juliet take that lacks the satirical or statement-worthy rewards of its sex-positive approach. All of this stems from Jack's character, the “always winning” sad-sack who’s allowed to carry out disturbing behaviors while passed as the “lonely loser,” for who even Austin Brown’s plucky score shows pity. PVT CHAT becomes an irritating, grating watch that’s tarnished by unenthusiastic performances (outside eroticism) and male gazes that are both egotistical and exploitative (physically and emotionally). How Ben Hozie approaches sexual professionalism is not the problem. To put it lightly, it’s just about everything else on-screen.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.