'Cam' Review: Identity As a Fragile Series of Zeros and Ones

Cam

Think The Net, but with Sandra Bullock riding a motorized sex saddle.

Horror films typically set their characters in a scenario where they face some manner of external threat. Killers, monsters, animals, sentient trees. Sometimes, though, the more familiar enemy is one we make for ourselves. Psychological terrors can be just as damaging as the physical, though, and the loss of a part pales beside the loss of your whole being.

Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a young woman with an ever-growing goal. She wants to be the most popular at what she does, and what she does is work as an online cam-girl named Lola doing live shows for eager chatroom fans who “tip” based on their satisfaction and desires. She spends time offline with her mother and teenage brother and occasionally hangs out with other cam-girls — they’re more co-workers and competitors than friends — but her focus, her drive, is clearly building her fan base and reaching #1 on the site’s ranking of most popular girls. She teases them, does a shared show with another girl, and even finds a gimmick involving simulated suicide, and the men eat it up.

Her efforts pay off, but as she climbs the ranking and finds “friends” in men who meet and pay handsomely for her presence offline she wakes one day into a nightmare. Her login attempt fails as it doesn’t recognize her password, and a little bit of digging reveals that someone who looks exactly like her has taken over the account and is doing shows as Lola. Is she the victim of identity theft, is she going mad, or is it something else all together?

Cam feels like the unlikely mash-up of Irwin Winkler’s The Net (1995) and David J. Schow’s short story “Red Light” — if you haven’t read Schow’s award-winning tale do so soon (but you can skip The Net if you’ve somehow managed to do so before now). The shared conceit is that the more we put ourselves out there the less of us remains. The answer in neither case is to withdraw completely, and Alice follows suit and fights to regain her online identity, and in a not-so exaggerated sense, her very soul.

Director/co-writer Daniel Goldhaber and co-writer Isa Mazzei craft a very specific world from Mazzei’s own real life experiences, and it becomes instantly familiar to viewers whether they’ve participated in a sex chat room or not. Alice’s interactions with the online world are constant in an effort to stay in the forefront of her followers’ minds. We tweet, IG, and poke people on Facebook (is that still a thing? is it evident I’m not on Facebook?), and she sends dirty pics and innuendo. We get “likes” and she gets cash, but the drive is the same, and if we’re being honest most of us spend far too much time online engaging in these kinds of meaningless efforts.

It’s an artificial world by its very construct, and the more Alice puts into it the more of herself she loses. Her suicide may be fake, but she is killing part of herself. As much as the film explores that theme it’s also a welcome take on sex workers in general. Sure they’re every bit as catty as competitive co-workers in other environments, but the film never attempts to shame Alice or the others for their occupation. If anything it’s Alice who seemingly lacks pride in what she does — she’s hiding the truth from almost everyone and is embarrassed when it’s revealed — and that in part may be fueling the split between her and “Lola.” It’s no small thing, and the idea adds weight to the ending in satisfying ways.

As smart as the insightful beats are some of her interactions with “real world” characters ring a bit false. A police visit is unhelpful as expected but exaggerated a bit too much for absurd effect, and one of her special fellas feels equally heightened. They don’t feel like actual reality, but they’re arguably a part of the insane reality Alice finds herself in. Performances, however, do succeed with Brewer in particular getting a standout role after shining on the periphery of shows like Orange Is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Cam sets traditional concerns of identity and paranoia in a modern setting, and it’s more harrowing for it. The thin membrane separating the real world from the online one is permeable from this direction only, and too much time spent on the other side may just have consequences beyond our control.

[Note: Our review originally ran during Fantasia 2018.]

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