Got a friend request from you. Hacked? Might wanna change your password.
A familiar refrain for anyone on Facebook, so everyone. On the receiving end, a panic: What have they seen? What do they know? What have they taken? To the sender, it’s a pat-yourself play to say you’ve done a good job for a friend … or perhaps just the persona they want you to perceive.
The weaponization of an online dupe — no mere hack but someone with your face, laugh and persona engaging the community you’ve curated — drives the idea of Cam, a Blumhouse production coming to Netflix after a strong showing at the Fantasia International Film Festival this summer. (It streams starting Friday.)
Alice (Madeline Brewer of The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange is the New Black) makes her living as a cam girl — live-streamed sex shows whose content driven by however many tokens are tipped. Spanking, bouncing, “cum shows.” All have a price. Even then, bidding wars for how large or — in the case of the Vibratron, with what sounds like a leaf-blower engine — physically desensitizing the device. Want to go private? Pay up. It’s possible. Alice’s only rules: No public displays, no proclamations of love, no faked orgasms. It’s her way of seeming realistic but reserved, raunchy but respectable — areas of control in her chosen profession.
Her cam-girl persona, Lola, is paying off. Alice has sugar daddies without dispensing any sugar. She rents a nice house in Phoenix, buys $5,000 memory foam sofas, receives jewelry in the mail. But Alice has yet to crack the top 50 on her site despite increasingly outrageous and popular scenarios, which include grisly staged suicides, and she can’t understand how she’s not rising higher. “Give them a chance to miss you,” pleads Tinkerboy (Patch Darragh), one of Alice’s simpering fans. But as it is for those of us online and not removing our clothes, the pressure to always create new content online is immense, and Cam’s first act nails the dovetailing pace of Alice’s addiction to admiration.
Screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber immerse us into the camming culture and community with dialogue and scenarios that feel frank, forthright and fresh. Mazzei drew on her own camming experiences for the screenplay, presenting this area of sex work both without judgment and without makeup. Is it a place for creativity and self-expression? Unquestionably. Is it yet another arena in which women can cut each other down? At times. Is it an outlet for the lonely to find comfort? Yeah. Is it something to which you can irretrievably lose yourself? Sure.
The rabbit hole down which Alice tumbles happens after she agrees to a joint broadcast with a fellow cammer. She wakes up the next day and can’t log on. Why? Because she’s already broadcasting. Or, at least, a Lola who looks exactly like her is broadcasting. But this Lola seems to have no reason to keep Alice’s ambitions in check, having inherited all of her followers but none of her inhibitions. The more unhinged non-Lola becomes, the higher her ranking rises … and the more unmoored Alice becomes as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery.
From here, Cam can choose an inquisition of the dissociative nightmare in digital identity loss or an investigation of a ghost in the machine that has shown its face. Alice’s mom (Melora Walters) shows a preference for the digital double’s go-for-broke personality over her own daughter’s demeanor, and Alice’s equivocation with her mom about her chosen field — she doesn’t want to reveal it until she’s at the top — gives us a good psychological sketch. But beyond that, Cam doesn’t set up enough real-world conflict or connection to be a more purely psychological. Thus, something suspicious is happening and it’s here where Cam’s feature-length sustainability starts to sag.
Herrings can’t be red with supporting characters this monochromatic. The reveal is just sort of … there. Brewer evokes both the rush of her early success and the revulsion of what comes from it, but she can’t salvage a second act in which Alice is largely passive. (Imagine Searching if John Cho’s character just kind of gave up on finding his missing daughter for a while and started calling tech support. A lot.) And once Alice learns what’s happening, her inability to ask questions of others she should engage hampers both Cam’s momentum and its ideas.
Thankfully, Mazzei and Goldhaber rally for a visually dizzying finale in which Alice hatches a risky scheme to save herself. It’s only here that Cam regains the bittersweet bravura of its beginning while bringing meaning to its visual motif of infinity mirrors and soft neon. Mazzei understands our path from outlet to obsession and perhaps obliteration can be as quick as the speeds we’re pulling down on our connection. Forget the self-flagellating attempts at explanatory horror. These moments, the real Cam, are the ones worth tipping with your time.