Dir: Jed Weintrob. USA. 2001. 85mins.

A romantic comedy about a group of young New Yorkers looking for sex and possibly even love on the Internet, On_Line offers a refreshing alternative to such feeble Hollywood attempts to milk the theme as the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie You've Got Mail. Shot in early 2001, Jed Weintrob's rather self-consciously hip film inevitably falls short of its cutting-edge ambitions, and its grungy, low-budget look excludes broader commercial potential. Still, this Cook's Tour though the vast range of opportunities open to the lonely and horny online, including sex chat rooms, webcam girls, porn sites, dating websites and personal ads and a vigorous cybersex session, contains some very lively ideas. It could appeal both to younger viewers familiar with the underworld of Internet sex and to those curious about it.

John (Josh Hamilton) and his flatmate Moe (Harold Perrineau) run a live interactive website in which clients pay top dollar to act out their erotic fantasies with hosts, including the foxy, bi-sexual Jordan (Vanessa Ferlito) and cynical Al (John Fleck), who specialises in gay S/M role-play scenarios. While the extrovert Moe has no trouble attracting babes in real-time - his current date is Moira, a moody artist (Isabel Gillies) - John is still brooding about his previous girlfriend, but finds temporary relief with Jordan in a session that offers prurient viewers a graphic guide to the nuts and bolts of virtual sex.

Also plying her wares is Angel, a webcam girl who broadcasts her life online 24/7, played by real camgirl Liz Owens. Completing the mix is Ed (Eric Millegan), a suicidal gay kid living in the closet in Sticksville, Ohio (the film's only character not based in New York). His regular chats with Al are a lifeline that gradually develops from ritualised sex into genuine attraction.

For them all, the Internet, with its unique combination of isolation and intimacy, has become a substitute for their failure to make satisfying emotional connections away from the computer screen. In that sense, despite its modern veneer, On_Line is a classic New York story of alienated big-city people.

The early sequences are a turn-off for technophones, as the six netizens are thinly sketched out in short order with a blitz of tricksy visuals; the film's poor technical resolution doesn't help here. The dizzy succession of heavily manipulated split screen images might reflect the way people surf on their computers, but it's still hard on the eye when magnified on the big screen.

When the characters' paths begin to cross in the outside world, On_Line gathers dramatic momentum. A suicide attempt is averted, John's hopes of getting real with Jordan end in comical fiasco and Al and Ed contemplate a man-to-man meeting, hearts in mouths - it is after all, as they remark, much easier to love a ghost in the machine than a real person.

Weintrob's method of filming scenes simultaneously, with the actors sitting in different rooms, results in some uneven performances, especially Hamilton's geeky central character, but Fleck and Perrineau (Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet) provide solid support and the gorgeous Ferlito has a ball as an Internet fantasy girl.

Prod cos: Internet Stories Productions
Int'l Sales:
Internet Stories Productions (1) 917 754 4179)
Tanya Selvaratnam, Adam Brightman
Andrew Osborne, Weintrob
Toshiaki Ozawa
Prod des:
Jory Adam
Stephanie Sterner
Roger Neill
Main cast:
Josh Hamilton, Harold Perrineau, Isabel Gillies, John Fleck, Vanessa Ferlito, Eric Millegan