Musician and filmmaker Ben Hozie tends to make films about New York’s more bohemian personalities. From documentary shorts about painters who use their own bed as a studio, to fiction films about philosophy-addled art terrorists, his is the demi-monde of unknown artists and free-thinking outcasts who might just be inching towards madness and getting a little too comfortable.
Hozie’s latest feature, PVT Chat, does an impressive job of presenting strange, not-entirely-likeable characters and wrapping them up in a compelling story full of grubby, oddball energy. Jack (Peter Vack) is a professional gambler who spends his days alternating between online Blackjack binges and one-to-one video sessions with cam girls in the privacy of his windowless Chinatown apartment.
Freed from the daylight hours of a typical job, he inhabits a nocturnal world where strange encounters – both virtual and IRL – seem to dictate his actions for him. After developing a mad crush on cam girl dominatrix Scarlet (Julia Fox), he begins to pursue her obsessively, but Scarlet has her own story and her own secrets.
PVT Chat, from the outset, is demonstrably the work of a director with a grounding in documentary filmmaking. Hozie functions as a cinematic one-man-band, directing his own script with a solitary camera in hand. It creates a hyper intimate feel, somewhere beyond cinema verite, where surveillance and hacked webcams (perhaps the direct-to-smartphone style of social media) are just as likely the visual reference points.
With its abundant and very graphic sex scenes, PVT Chat could easily feel exploitative. That it never does is testament to the atmosphere conjured by Hozie and his two leads. The audience witness Jack and Scarlet at their most exposed, physically and emotionally; they are left to sympathise with these cam-crossed loners without losing sight of the film’s surrounding subtext. How private, exactly, is time which you’ve paid for? Is privacy itself, commodified and compressed like the ‘PVT’ of the title, losing currency altogether?
PVT Chat doesn’t always hit every note it aims for. The same ragtag energy which propels it can occasionally become distracting, and there are sequences in the script which feel gratuitous. However, its independent spirit shines through gloriously, reminding the viewer that, really, a decent story and some talented actors is all that’s required to make a movie. Throw into the mix a gag about male masturbation which involves a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce, and you’ve got a Cassavetes-inspired romp which more than deserves your attention.
PVT Chat is available now on digital platforms.
Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom