PVT Chat is well-meaning but obvious, a quasi-intriguing short film concept that uncomfortably stretches itself to feature length, oblivious to the fact that its plot is padded and its points are transparent after the first five minutes. It’s also painfully self-defeating, since this film about the psycho-sexual disconnect that can develop between media and its consumers hinges on the indie fan-boy fixation with Julia Fox ever since her breakout turn in Uncut Gems. There is a certain meta discomfort to be explored from casting such a standout presence in an otherwise rough-hewn, unassuming film, but it’s entirely ignored here in favor of exploring fairly obvious points amount human intimacy being killed by our increasing consumption of the digital world.
Writer-director Ben Hozie is preoccupied with the ultimate isolation of fleeting online connections, how the internet allows us to be fully connected to the outside world without actually stepping foot in it. It’s a lifestyle to which Jack (Peter Vack) has grown fully accustomed, sitting in the spare, poorly-lit confines of his desolate NYC apartment all day and night, “making a living” on hit-or-miss bets made on an online blackjack site and eventually settling in for late nights spent on cam girl sites, exchanging his winnings for some brief interactions with women who pretend to take an interest. His favorite is Scarlet (Fox), whose specialty is female dominance, which clearly suits Jack’s interest – their nightly ritual culminates in Scarlet pretending to put out her joint on Jack’s tongue.
Jack seems to be at an inflection point – on the brink of fully crossing the digital divide, but still occasionally snapping out of the daze to recognize the fallacy. Hozie’s screenplay drops hints about what has influenced Jack’s ultimate descent into isolation – most notably his roommate’s recent suicide – but isn’t willing to explore those implications fully, instead trying to formulate a nascent romance between two lost souls despite the coldly transactional nature of their connection. Of course, once one acclimates to a “relationship” based on mutual isolation, can the bridge to legitimate intimacy be easily crossed? There’s a pretty easy answer to that question, one that could either punctuate a simple short film or serve as an act break in a film that wants to more complexly explore those implications. But PVT Chat drags its characters along for nearly 90 minutes to reach a conclusion the audience realized from the beginning.
The central performances are fine enough, and Fox in particular is able to ride the line between faux eroticism and legitimate longing. But the filmmaking does them no favors, situating them chaotically in a visual atmosphere that could only be described as anti-cinematic, forcing them to act against a backdrop devoid of any character or intrinsic nuance. To be fair, that seems to be on purpose; Hozie mentions in the film’s Production Notes of his desire to strip away artifice and achieve something “raw and unglamorous.” But PVT Chat makes the common indie film misstep of confusing rawness with a lack of basic craft.
Another frequent faux pas of no-budget filmmaking is using nudity for shock value, which PVT Chat does in abundance, a decision that derails the film’s stated perspective about the hollow illusion of lusting through a screen. The casting of Fox, an object of affection for many in the wake of Uncut Gems, offered the filmmakers an opportunity to cross into intriguing meta territory, a sort of condemnation of a target audience that is just as likely to pine for Fox’s on-screen image as Jack. It’s ironic, then, that the film ultimately provides vicarious satisfaction to a certain sect of the film-geek populace that has become obsessed with Fox. It’s the final nail in the coffin for a film that strives for cultural profundity but falls prey to the very culture it indicts.