Finally, someone has made a film about the existential horror of getting locked out of your account, and the horror is all too real. Daniel Goldhaber’s “Cam” also touches on a number of other digital crises (e.g. the way in which the internet’s short attention span requires people to constantly reaffirm their own existence), but this clever and unnerving mind-fuck of a movie is at its most effective when tracing the uneasy shadow relationships we share with our online personas.
It’s one thing to curate some kind of identity on social media — to make ourselves appear more aloof and desirable than we they are in the flesh — but what happens when the projection of who we are begins to subsume the reality? What happens when our avatars take on lives of their own? As Kurt Vonnegut put it: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” He was writing about Nazi propagandists, but his words also ring true for cam girls who constantly live-stream themselves for chatrooms full of horny strangers.
These are well-trodden ideas that predate social media, but “Cam” lends them new life by making them hyper-literal. Even when the story becomes tinged by the supernatural, the film remains grounded and mundane enough to avoid sinking into the stuff of finger-wagging parable — it avoids the “Black Mirror” effect by keeping things real, or at least real enough. That starts with Alice, the web-addicted twentysomething at the center of all this.
Played to obsessive perfection by “The Handmaid’s Tale” star Madeline Brewer, and hatched from screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own camming experience, Alice (who performs as “Lola”) is a successful cam girl on the brink of relative stardom. Money isn’t really an issue for her — deep-pocketed fans have paid for a nice house in the suburbs, and all the delivery sushi a young woman could want — but Alice is preoccupied with her stats. She’s hellbent on climbing the charts of the popular cam site that dominates her life, and she’ll stop at nothing to get to the top (her favorite ploy for popularity: duping her viewers with grisly and elaborate fake suicides).
Alice has got a competition in her, as Daniel Plainview might say, but the compulsiveness of her work seems less about winning than it is reaffirming her own existence. She’s convinced that a life that’s watched is a life worth living, and every tip she gets from a fan is a reminder that she’s alive. Even before things go totally haywire, you get the sense that she’d sooner die than log off — or that there’s no longer any difference between the two.
By the time the movie starts, she only exists to herself through the eyes of her viewers. Lola has already taken over, Alice just doesn’t know it yet (the infinity mirrors outside her bedroom suggest an irreconcilable disassociation at work). And then, after a desperate group cam show that threatens do irrevocable harm her body, Alice wakes up one morning to find that the coup is complete. Not only has she been locked out of her account, but Lola is still streaming. It’s a nightmare that’s both relatable and inexplicable in equal measure: She hasn’t just been hacked, she’s been replaced.
This early twist sends the movie even deeper into Lynchian territory, but “Cam” would have been plenty effective without it. Goldhaber, resisting the urge to confine the entire film to a computer screen (à la “Unfriended” or next month’s “Searching”), creates a thoroughly credible live-stream community. Lola’s web chamber is slathered in a neon pink light that turns everything it touches into the stuff of pure creepiness, especially the giant teddy bear in the corner. Each scene feels like a perverted riff on a Gregory Crewdson photo.
Her anonymous fans, typing away with one hand, talk at her from behind the safety of their computer screens. Everything they say feels underwritten by the constant threat of changing the channel and seeing what one of the other cam girls is up to; Lola might have the control, but her viewers have the power. It’s an uneasy dynamic, to say the least, and Mazzei’s knowing script ensures that each tip and twisted gif feels as loaded as it should. Things only get creepier when Lola meets up with two of her most dedicated men, both of whom are frighteningly believable manifestations of frustrated sexual rage (full credit to Patch Darragh and Michael Dempsey for making the most of their thankless roles).
It’s all too much like a snuff film to be sexy, and only grows more unsettling once “Cam” pulls back the curtain and lets us in to the rest of Alice’s life. There isn’t a lot to see backstage, just a mom (the great Melora Walters) who doesn’t know what her daughter is up to, and a younger brother who probably knows too much. Alice’s only friends appear to be the other cam girls she talks to over Skype, but the film is more interested in her rivals (“The Love Witch” star Samantha Robinson is a haughty delight as a cam girl diva).
“Cam” is far more compelling when tracing Alice’s dilemma than when actually drawing it out — aside from a scene where two cops disregard the safety of a sex worker, it’s much scarier before its heroine begins to recognize what’s at stake — but Goldhaber’s steady hand ensures that things are rivetingly queasy from start to finish, and Brewer’s performance is powerful enough to flip the script on the entire cam experience. This is an industry that depends on the customers believing that they really know the people they’re obsessively watching online, but Brewer inhabits Alice as someone who can’t see herself clearly (or is so determined to be seen that she loses sight of everything else), which invites us to know her better than she knows herself.
As a result, “Cam” is able to reflect the strange house of mirrors that we’re all lost in whenever we log on, and it’s able to viscerally convey the panic of trying to find a way out. The ultimate solution that Alice devises is too simple to be dramatically satisfying, but it’s believable enough to scare you off social media… if only for a couple of minutes.
“Cam” premiered at the 2018 Fantasia Festival. It will be released in the United States this fall.