Monday, July 5, 2021

Connection Lost: ZOLA and PVT CHAT

Two recent indie dramas, Zola and PVT Chat, build character studies with an unusually frank, open, and realistic understanding about sex and disconnection in our modern world. They’re both built from internet culture and as such have an understanding about the ways in which modern lives can become nesting dolls of fictions and identity. Sometimes it gives you control over your mind and body; other times it cedes that control to others. Our new ways of connecting with one another can breed new disfunction and separation, even from our true selves.

This idea becomes a quasi-comic semi-thriller for director Janicza Bravo, who wrote Zola with Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris. The movie, a mix of lurid based-on-true events and self-reflective humor, plays as tossed off and eccentrically personal as a Twitter thread. Fittingly, just such a viral story is what it’s based on. We meet our narrator Zola (Taylour Paige) as she meets her match: an energetic young woman (Riley Keough) who becomes a fast friend. Big mistake. She invites her on a road trip to Tampa where a weekend performing at a lucrative strip club will make them big bucks. Bigger mistake. It’s the past-tense of the narration — borrowed from the flurry of vernacular tweet speak and played off with buzzing alerts and time stamps in iPhone fonts — that gives the movie a gloss of wry melancholy, while the present-tense buzz of suspense and incident keeps the episodic one-thing-after-another on the right side of compelling. The story soon grows to include a pimp (Colman Domingo) and a boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and a host of strange Floridians in and around the sex work trade. The film is full up of the kind of off-beat detail and memorable personalities that imply dark emotional undercurrents and strange backstories simply by casting memorable faces and expert actors to inhabit them.

As Zola falls deeper into the unfortunate and dangerous events of this wild weekend, the movie remains committed to her perspective — aside from one briskly funny side-step into an alternate version of events. Through freeze-frames and overlapping dissolves, Bravo highlights the woozy confusion and destabilizing falling sensation of getting so much further in over your head than you’d ever imagine. The dance between dark intent and light comedy adds to the wobbly tone — in a good way. And then Paige’s lead performance is so breezily wounded, both traumatized and above it all in a dazzling surface of openness and charm underneath which churns a self-flagellating what-did-I-get-myself-into? mixed with a how-do-I-survive-this? Throughout, constant selfies and posts, Vines and ads, flow through the character’s lives, building images to which they can’t or won’t conform. The movie explodes outwards even as it falls inwards. And wrapping its events in its telling somehow makes Zola’s plight more bearable even as it gets squirmingly suspenseful and ends abruptly. We know she’ll make it out; and we know she’ll reclaim the story — and her body — as her own.
Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat is more restrained, like its obsessive lead character. He is Jack (Peter Vack) a young man who makes his living gambling on internet blackjack. Between rounds, he cruises sex chats for cam girls. His favorite is Scarlet (Julia Fox), not just because she’s attractive and good at dirty talk, but because he finds himself wanting to have normal conversations with her. In a weird way, they start to play out like awkward dates. Sure, he’s paying for her time, but his addiction to the sensation starts to get conflated with real affection. She actually likes him, right? he wonders. As we follow him through his daily life — chatting with his landlord and a handyman; attending a friend’s art show; playing round after round of cards — he becomes increasingly interested on the moments he gets an alert that his favorite cam is live. The movie captures a sense of the digital and the tangible intermingling, where the unreality of a virtual connection starts to take on qualities that feel present in his life. One can feel the erotic potential in their relationship despite the fact they’ve never met; it’s clear memories of her still buzz in his head as the handheld shots follow along behind him down his routine New York City streets. We get a sense he might be a loner, but for how engaged and animated he is talking to this girl he’s never met in the flesh. Yet when a woman he knows in real life invites him over, he remains distracted. Why focus on the one he can actually be with, he seems to unconsciously decide, when he can chat with the one he can’t.

The movie is clear-eyed, and the performers trust their director and the material enough to expose themselves for the sake of the project. It’s unflinching, yet generous. It’s observant, but doesn’t exactly judge. It eventually opens up to take in Scarlet’s perspective, and seeing behind the screens from her side is a productive reminder that the connection and disjunction flows both ways. Their relationship is so transactional, despite the fact that they can push that aside in the moment. Their relationship is entirely intangible, computer-moderated, digital bits. And yet they’re in each other’s heads all the time. They share ideas about art, about life. He likes when she takes control; and yet it’s all verbal. He likes giving himself into her force willingly, even as he pries into her life and starts to think maybe, just maybe, he could actually find where she lives. That plot element dances on the edge of creepiness, and the movie knows it. The movie’s cheaply framed and presented realism underlines the blurred lines — emotional, physical, psychological, sexual — in these lives, and the actors complement the spare style with bare displays of their character’s obsessions and aimlessness. By the surprisingly bittersweet conclusion it’s clear that this is a connection that will need some distance to remain healthy, even if it means having to pretend there’s still that space where they can look and talk, but can’t actually touch.

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