It was a banner year for films about the digital world at Fantasia this year, and though I didn’t get to see every single one of them (I did manage to see Unfriended: Dark Web at SXSW this year, which was also screened at the festival), I’m really happy to report that you have something incredible to look forward to.
Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam may prove to be the best of these entries, as it isn’t totally constrained to a formal style (as innovative as the Bekmambetov-produced screen dramas are, there’s something to be said for being able to get up and move away from the computer), and boasts an interesting and authentic viewpoint from a internet subculture that informs every line of dialogue and glossy frame of this propulsive thriller. It’s written by Isa Mazzei, a former sex worker, and her experiences in the camming world are vital to why this works so well.
Cam is about Alice (Madeline Brewer), a young camgirl performing under the name “Lola,” who is looking to move up in her industry. I mean this literally, as she wants to climb the charts on the site that she cams for, and she’s got a real knack for this kind of work: She’s funny, sexy and personable, and she has an absolutely macabre touch (which I don’t want to spoil for you, as like Gambit back in the day, it’s too good to reveal the climax of the first scene). Her audience, comprised of lonely men and women (best demonstrated by Patch Darragh’s sad coder) and the occasionally creepy camgirl connoisseurs (who is represented by Michael Dempsey’s sugar-daddy meets the reviewer from The Girlfriend Experience character) loves her, and have provided her with enough financial security that she owns a damn house and a car already. Talk about millennial hustle.
Anyways, after a night of performing with a group of other streamers, Alice wakes up to discover that her password has been changed, that all of her account recovery materials have been stolen, and that a woman who looks exactly like her has taken over her stream. This means several things: First, her main source of income is totally gone; second, her life’s work is in danger of being stolen from her; third, her viewers are communicating with someone who isn’t actually her and thusly could be defrauded; and fourth, her online doppelgänger is perfect enough to pass for her. So, Alice will have to get to the bottom of exactly who (or what) this false Lola is, and will have to find a way to get her life back. It’s an excellent set-up for a blistering thriller, and Goldhaber and Mazzei make it sing.
The obvious go-to comparison is something like De Palma’s Body Double, but I found myself often intoxicated by hints of the Lynchian — or at least Twin Peaks‘ aesthetic — that greatly informs Goldhaber’s dueling styles. The gray lowlights of Alice’s reality only serve to contrast and heighten the dreamlike fantasy of Lola’s bedroom, full of soft neon colors, the harsh blue of the computer screen, and hints of playful sexuality in the other decorations (one thinks of Fire Walk With Me at points in this film, as it’s a similar deconstruction of a person’s public image, though one with a significantly happier ending than Laura Palmer’s). It’s fitting that two different people occupy those spaces: Alice, who just wants to be successful at a thing she’s good at and who has all the things that her viewers would find to be turn-offs (a family, anxiety, jealousy, fear), and Lola, who is a sexual plaything crafted to be endlessly watchable and “manipulated” by the people in the chat. This duality is pushed towards its breaking point, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch Brewer navigate these two distinct personalities. She gives a fearless performance, one that plumbs the depths of this character’s psyche, and it would be a deep injustice for her work here to go unnoticed by the filmgoing populace at large.
Still, the true standouts here are Mazzei and Goldhaber, who have crafted as effective and well-oiled a thriller as you’ll see from any studio this days, which will cause you to gnaw your fingertips off with the anxiety it produces (I shouted in fear at my TV screen a few times over the course of a viewing, which is about as high a compliment that one can pay a film like this). Mazzei’s screenplay only takes the foot off the gas once or twice, but it is lean and efficient all the way through, which helps to buff out some slightly unsatisfying narrative choices. The ultimate cause of all of Alice’s problems is a bit under-explained and feels potentially false, but the fact that it isn’t satisfying enables the more surrealist elements of the film to take over in its final set-piece, which features an utterly incredible copycat game between Alice and Lola to prove whom is actually tough enough to survive in this online environment: The illusion or the person?
Cam might not be as formally intriguing as something like the Unfriended series, which took its high-concept approach to multimedia storytelling and doggedly stuck with it for two features, but it’s as every bit accomplished and intelligent as those films, with arguably more to say about how we live our digital and physical lives. Moreover, it’s great to see depictions of sex workers as they often are in real life, and Cam is as much a respectful portrait of a section of an industry as it is a horror film. It treats these men and women with actual respect for what they do as creators, entertainers, and honest-to-god entrepreneurs, and it avoids every single easy choice — mainly that these people are victims — that has felled so many a movie about the industry in the past. It’ll fuck you up and enlighten you at the same time, and that’s about as wholesome as a moviegoing experience gets, honestly. More like this, please.