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Fantasia Fest 2020 : PVT CHAT is a sinister and hilarious take on loneliness and obsession in the internet age

Out of all the brilliant feature films and shorts virtually screening at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, PVT CHAT was my first choice. Thanks to magnetic lead performances from Peter Vack (HomelandMozart in the JungleThe Blacklist) and Julia Fox (Uncut GemsPuppet) under Ben Hozie’s frenetic and intimate direction, I made the right choice.

Jack (Peter Vack) is a socially isolated grifter who spends his days endlessly playing virtual blackjack and seeking companionship with online sex workers. He’s particularly fixated on e-dominatrix Scarlet (Julia Fox); their dynamic shifts between mistress-and-slave to something closer to therapist and patient.

Jack’s lived alone in a dreary, cramped apartment ever since his former room-mate took his own life, and Scarlet is in a strained relationship with a playwright who seems more interested in mining their personal life for artistic inspiration than being a loving partner. It’s clear from their video chats that there’s a distant fondness between the two, but when Jack catches a glimpse of Scarlet in his neighbourhood one night, his desire for affection and human connection takes a dark turn into obsession.

Vack’s performance as Jack is equal parts unsettling and charismatic in a way that evokes Matt Dillon in films like The House That Jack Built and Wild Things. A quick-thinking social chameleon; Vack’s protagonist deftly manages to squeeze out of unpaid debts and danger by the skin of his teeth. Writer/director Ben Hozie has crafted a character who isn’t a caricature-esque Patrick Bateman, but a believable manipulator – the kind many of us will probably have run into before.

Much like with Fox’s previous film Uncut Gems, she steals the show as Scarlet. Rather than being reduced to plot device constrained to a screen within a screen, her character is thankfully given the space to be as complex and real as the dual antagonist/protagonist who seeks her out. Her commanding presence brings a hilarious quality to the film’s toe-curling cringe video sessions between Jack and Scarlet.

Gonzo-style camerawork makes for an uncomfortably intimate and gritty joyride à la the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time; it’s perfectly matched to the nervous tension that drives the film. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for sneaky cameos from Red Scare podcast hosts Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, who should, frankly, have a cameo in any independent film set in New York City.

This is a great, darkly funny debut feature from a director I’m really hoping to see more from soon.

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