If you like your face rubbed in the seedy underbelly of after-hours psychosexual obsession in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then “PVT Chat” is the movie for you. Writer/director Ben Hozie’s great-looking indie knows how to conjure a gritty New York atmosphere of cigarette smoke and ennui in the city, but despite highly naked (in every sense of the word) performances from Julia Fox and Peter Vack, it never quite finds profundity in the twilit gutters of a slacker’s dirty mind.
And that’s not passing judgment on anyone’s sexual proclivities, as this movie assures. Jack’s (Peter Vack) taste is for women comfortably at a distance through a screen, as he spends his nights sending tokens to virtual cam girls who degrade him while he masturbates drearily. His professional life during waking hours is nonexistent: Despite seemingly plenty of disposable income, he can’t make rent on time, and his roommate recently died by suicide, leaving Jack with the bill. His spartan diet, meanwhile, consists totally of ramen noodles. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and never seems to shower, despite his hair always achieving that perfectly effortless tousle that could weaken your knees, and make you want to drain your bank account and run away together.
So to disguise his colossal under-achievements and impress the women on his MacBook screen, he’s fashioned an alter ego as a software developer patenting an app that can read and digitize thoughts. (The intrigue of this is never explored.) The object of his obsession (and ultimately of the movie’s) is Scarlet (“Uncut Gems” breakout Julia Fox), a webcam dominatrix who helps Jack get off by blowing cigarette smoke at the camera, and flatly reciting debasing filth. Fox is eerily good at delivering with straight-eyed deadpan such lines as “Slaves don’t get to play with my pussy, so you’ll just have to settle for the smoke,” or “Your cock is mine. Your money is mine.”
Indeed, his money is hers, as Jack is squandering away all his funds, when not in chat rooms, on online blackjack. He starts taking increasingly risky bets, buoyed by the newfound joie de vivre that Scarlet has stirred in his step, even as their relationship remains a strictly online, transactional affair. Stalking the nighttime streets of lower New York in a long, black coat — Hozie, also serving as his own cinematographer, has a keen eye for romanticizing urban seaminess — Jack thinks he sees Scarlet in a bodega, and follows her. How Scarlet doesn’t sense he’s on her trail, winding behind her through dark alleys, seems implausible. But maybe that’s because she’s actually led him there.
The facade created by whatever red-lit studio where Scarlet performs her on-camera acts, against a backdrop of shiny dildos and kinky sex toys, is rightly smashed when “PVT Chat” pivots to her POV. Turns out, “Scarlet” has a live-in boyfriend (played by indie MVP Keith Poulson), a neurotic playwright with whom she’s saving up to open a theater space of their own. Problem is, she’s bankrolling his entire enterprise, including a navel-gazing, self-indulgent play he’s putting together that’s a blatant mirror of their own life.
“PVT Chat” offers more than a few wry takedowns of the art scene in New York, including a ludicrous gallery opening staged by Jack’s old flame Emma (Nikki Belfiglio) that, as one spectator observes, may or may not be a comment on Occupy Wall Street. Jack, dejected by his fruitless sex life, briefly entertains starting things back up with Emma — only to check in on Scarlet’s cam while hiding in Emma’s bedroom, ejaculating discretely (so he thinks) between the pages of her thumbed-through copy of “Ulysses.” “I’m halfway through that,” Emma says.
Whether in a periwinkle faux-fur coat or clad in slick dominatrix leather, Fox is a smoldering screen presence capable of destruction, and the actress appears to have been game for anything Hozie asked of her. The camera clearly adores her, and she delivers on the promise of her scene-stealing turn in “Uncut Gems,” though you can’t help but wonder how much of Scarlet’s blasé exhaustion with a world of needy men is Fox’s acting. To say Fox bares all, and with a cheeky grin, is an understatement.
As for Vack’s character, it’s hard to feel anything but schadenfreude for the guy, charmingly unkempt as he may be. He’s somewhere between fuckboy, softboy, and straight-up stalker. The actor brings a raffish self-awareness to the role, especially as Jack’s online sexual encounters topple into slapstick, and in compromising positions you wouldn’t want to walk in on. On that note, the movie finally bows out with a graphic, and awkward, sexual encounter involving full-frontal, whiskey dick, and a very convincing prosthetic(?). And, of course, the cigarettes. It’s both icky and sweet, a balancing act that “PVT Chat” is always juggling, which may be the point.
But what is the movie trying to say? Is Jack some kind of subterranean poet of the night, doomed to romantic failure, wandering the city for love? Scarlet doesn’t get much of a voice outside of being a canvas for men to project their hang-ups onto, whether her clients or her boyfriend, though there are brief glimpses into her aspirations as a painter that suggest a damsel in distress with bigger plans. A heist-y subplot involving Jack trying to earn enough blackjack cash to pay off one of his super’s employee’s bills doesn’t pay off. That’s all to say “PVT Chat” never quite amounts to a meaningful experience, though as a grainy, scrappy New York movie, it’s certainly transportive. We might be in the gutter, but the view is great.
“PVT Chat” is now in select theaters from Dark Star Pictures, followed by a digital and VOD release on February 9.