On_Line marks a milestone of sorts in the evolution of the masturbatory genre one might call the Sundance rom-com—not for the techno-tweaks the title promises (see, there’s this thing called the Internet . . . ) but because its characters are literally wankers. Indifferently written, passably acted, resourcefully shot in video with enlivening splashes of local color (Smith Street’s Halcyon serves as its Central Perk), Jed Weintrob’s first feature is set in a milieu of webcams and credit-card-secure servers, of watching and not touching—except for whatever it is you’re doing with your non-mouse-operating hand.
But the few split-screened “mutually exclusive orgasms” (to quote one of the rueful cybersexers) are redolent of 9 1/2 Weeks, and the tone is generally too sappy for kink: Barely bothering with the psychology of voyeurism and exhibitionism, On_Line lurks in the overpopulated chat room of young, urban romantic consternation. Josh Hamilton’s John is a classic Amerindie protag—puppy-dog sensitivity papering over monstrous narcissism. Still moping over his ex-girlfriend, John posts too-much-info Web diary entries and runs the pay-per-view Intercon-X site with his roommate Moe (Harold Perrineau). Weintrob’s film dutifully weighs both sides: The Internet enables life-saving connectivity (especially if you’re a gay teen in small-town Ohio, or a suicidal gothess), but also heightens depressive alienation; On_Line of course impels its hero to Choose Life.
But over what, exactly? Seemingly conceived in the JenniCam-awed mid ’90s and already in need of an upgrade when it premiered at Sundance last year, the movie epitomizes the problems inherent in attempting to depict new (and constantly morphing) media—the inevitable obsolescence, the intangible particularities that resist or get lost in translation. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition was the literary breakthrough; Olivier Assayas’s upcoming demonlover is the movie one, suggesting a new hypertextual language for narrative film. Weintrob, for his part, uses split screens to simulate your average desktop environment. A serviceable though overly literal technique—when John launches into one of his droopy confessionals, three words come to mind: control, alt, delete.