1 Hr., 34 Mins.
Cam December 21, 2018
he moment someone begins actively broadcasting themselves on social media, a gulf forms. Developed is an “online version” of someone, constructed by assiduously edited photos and obfuscating video work, if need be; underneath them — the version only seen by a select few — is the “real” rendition. Increasingly rife in our social-media-dependent age is the presence of the Instagram persona, for instance; it is now easier than ever
to showcase an idealized rendering of the self.
Cam, an inward psychological horror film which debuted on Netflix last month, is not novel per se: explorations of identity, of course, have been kindling for thriller fare for decades. In Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), the leading heroines, played by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, drastically switched personalities and neuroses mid-feature, for no discernible reason. In The Others (2001), a Nicole Kidman-portrayed housewife living in a seemingly haunted mansion finds out that everything she’s come to know about herself is a quasi-mirage. And in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, begins losing sight of herself after taking on an emotionally and physically draining role.
Cam is refreshing in that the crisis of identity is brought on via one’s online identity in particular. The movie stars Madeline Brewer, who gives a moxied, committed performance, as a young woman who earns her keep as a cam girl — something of a new phenomenon. She does not strip during her public shows, but she has a relatively large following that rivals women who do. Men are taken with her burlesque-aping persona, and the often spectacular particulars of her shows — which welcome in dares and sometimes even special effects (in the film’s opening, she pretends to slit her throat for onlookers) — have helped build on her increasing notoriety.
She is bothered, though, by how difficult it has proven to become one of the top 50 most popular performers on the site for which she works. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with the unwillingness to completely strip. But another part is rooted in the frequently cutthroat nature of the niche business: At one point in the film, she finally makes it to slot 50, but is immediately undercut by a rival, Princess_X (Samantha Robinson, of 2017’s The Love Witch), who asserts that she will doff her clothing if Alice (aka Lola) drops 10 spots.
The horror narrative of Cam arrives about halfway through the feature, when Alice finds that she has been locked out of her account. Someone who looks and sounds exactly like her, and who is performing in a duplicate of her normal set-up, has taken over. Multiple attempts to connect with the cam company prove fruitless. The clone is becoming even more popular than the real Alice. What is going on? Is this replica a twin? A glitch? Something more sinister?
The true nature of the faux Lola is only vaguely explored. But that exploration feels marginal, anyway, in comparison to the film’s subtler, more puissant implications. Written by ex-cam girl Isa Mazzei, who initially wanted to make a documentary about the niche industry, Cam explores a number of both very-now and evolved anxieties: the social-media-assisted discord between a public face and the "true" self; the unrelenting, increased commodification and objectification that comes with working in adult entertainment; the way a woman’s self-worth is often contingent on male desire.
The incriminations are ever-present but soft-pedaled. Mazzei, along with the movie’s director, Daniel Goldhaber, are first inclined to make a satisfying psychological thriller, then a complex exploration of identity, sex, and technology, and how they can entwine. Cam has, I think germanely, been compared to Black Mirror (2011-present); if it were shorter, and an episode of the show, it might be considered a series high-water mark.
Cam ultimately doesn’t altogether cohere — real-life run-ins with loyal customers range from gratuitous to bemusing, and, as noted by some reviewers, a subplot dealing with Alice’s family discovering the truth behind her occupation is thinly investigated. Still, it’s cerebral, stylish, and terse — and Brewer’s performance is auspicious. B