Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet