From writer and director Ben Hozie, PVT Chat is a story of urban loneliness and isolation along with lust and obsession. Peter Vack acts in the role of Jack, an online gambler who feels internally empty and without any clear direction in life. Whenever he is not playing poker on the internet, he resorts to the online world of cam girls and pornography. Most of his time here is committed to the readily available physical pleasures. That is, until a particular cam girl, Scarlet (Julia Fox), ignites a spark of passion in Jack that is beyond the purely sexual realm and into genuine emotional territory.
There is a lot of interesting character drama to work with here in the script. The lead performances from Vack and Fox are great efforts and the introductions of quirky side characters add an intriguing dynamic to the story as well. We have Larry (Buddy Duress) and Will (Kevin Moccia), who are essentially the drinking, smoking, and gambling buddies of Jack’s and there is also Emma (Nikki Belfiglio), one of Jack’s old flames who is heavily involved in the local alternative art scene. The addition of each of these figures reveals something new about Jack’s relationships with people and his worldview. He is narcissistic and stricken with depression and anxiety. He has it made up in his mind that nobody in the world ever does anything altruistically. Supposedly, there is a selfish ulterior motive behind every positive action and “selfless” deed committed by people. Yet, Jack longs for a human relationship. As the viewer, you begin to feel pity for him.
However, far too often the attention of the film is turned away from character development for the sake of obscene, over-the-top sex scenes and extremely graphic nudity. It is rather difficult to maintain an emotional connection with Jack as a character when there is a new scene featuring him sexually pleasuring himself (seemingly unsimulated) every 20 minutes. Any empathy you have for him as a character also begins to fade as you realize that his fascination with Scarlet becomes disturbing and compulsive. The behavior could likely be categorized as stalking. He does not understand how to healthily respond to the emotions he is experiencing.
As for the character of Scarlet, more information comes to light about her life that makes you question your view of her as an individual. This has nothing to do with her occupation as a sex worker, which is completely legitimate. No, you begin to have second thoughts when you find out that she is emotionally manipulative and a liar. Granted, some of this is simply a means of protecting herself from men on the other side of the camera that could cause her harm, but, at other times, she is acting solely out of greed. Practically every character in this film is sleazy to one extent or another. One could interpret this as the fundamental message of this story: We are all morally corrupt, fraudulent people in different ways, who really only care about how we might personally benefit from any given situation. This is a very pessimistic viewpoint, yes, but not entirely untrue. There is plenty of evidence to back it up in the real world.
Regarding the setting, this shabby, dilapidated underbelly of New York City has been seen as a recurring character in filmographies from the likes of Martin Scorsese, but I would say this particular portrait is more comparable to what Josh and Benny Safdie have depicted in Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019). (Also notice the appearances of Buddy Duress and Julia Fox, who have both worked with the Safdie Brothers in the past). The neon lights, the grimy liquor stores, and the grubby apartment buildings, all captured by Hozie as the Director of Photography with handheld camerawork, establish the sensation that there are more stories of a similar nature to be told with other characters in the area. Behind every door and down each alleyway might be the potential for another character study. This is a section of New York City that I would not mind returning to in future narratives.
Indeed, it is quite frustrating to watch such a mixed-bag of a film when there is a lot to appreciate from the standpoint of low-budget filmmaking. The small cast blends into the environment and the fixation on the digital worlds of gambling and sex is timely and relevant, even more so in the current era of a pandemic that has forced many people to live their lives in front of a computer screen. The technical achievements of Ben Hozie’s endeavors as the writer, director, DP, and editor are worth celebrating. The final result of the film was ultimately his true artistic vision, with all the positives and negatives that come along with it. Due respect must be given to Hozie’s skill, creativity, and resourcefulness, even if his film does not quite stick the landing in all facets.
In select theaters February 5th, 2021.
Available on VOD and digital February 9th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.