by Andrew Wright


On_Line

dir. Weintrob

Opens Fri Sept 26

Hollywood Theater

From breakdancing to hacking to X-treme sports, few things can shame a thriving subculture like its portrayal on the big screen. However, On_Line, a micro-budgeted look at the newfangled art of shut-in internet love, goes beyond the fad to explore what makes the participants tick. Until it devolves into standard romantic melodrama near the end, it's a compelling, refreshingly non-judgmental look at the newest phase of one-handed clapping.

Shot almost entirely via webcam, the film follows the two owners of a sex-chat site, specializing in hooking up the lonely and/or desperate. As they begin to OD on the possibilities (one seizes the opportunity to nail as many clients as possible, while the other, more intriguingly, devotes all his time to watching an anonymous girl's 24/7 cam site), their obsessions rapidly ping-pong between lurkers and models both.

From the beginning, On_Line refuses to glamorize the basic nature of paid cyber-romance. No You've Got Mail dreamy soft-focus here; the increasingly disassociated characters spend almost every possible moment with one hand on their mouse and the other down their pants. What saves it from complete and utter bleakness is the uniform high quality of the actors (Josh Hamilton, in particular, brings an appealing every-schlub quality to his hapless voyeur), and writer/director Jed Weintrob's affectionate familiarity with the nuts and bolts of electronic hanky-panky.

As the degrees of separation get more convoluted, the intermingling plot strands unfortunately become more predictably by-the-numbers, culminating in a final beat that feels like a betrayal for all concerned. Still, credit is due to Weintrob for bringing a fascinating lifestyle to light, with enough flashes of humor to offset the lurking doom and gloom. It has a finger on the pulse of something major and even frightening, even if it can't quite articulate it.