Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Stars: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters
Of all professions, the oldest is among the most stigmatised by cinema. Sex workers do not carry much credo on the silver screen, especially in horror where they are almost always unsympathetic victims to whatever raving lunatic is wielding a knife this month. Don’t get me wrong, I have love for my slasher movies, but the gender politics and sexual politics of the genre often leave a lot to be desired. Sex workers face abuse and discrimination on a daily basis, especially in a society oft defined by entitlement. But, as with other groups marginalised by the mainstream, there have been some cinematic advances in recent years. Sean Baker’s Starlet gave the amateur porn industry a human heart and soul, while David Simon and George Pelecanos’ HBO series The Deuce continually investigates the relationship between the consumer and the consumed (even if James Franco’s presence remains a thorn in its side for many).
One of the slew of new Netflix ‘Originals’ – made in conjuncture with Blumhouse no less – represents another stride forward, illuminating the world of the ‘cam girl’. A thoroughly modern phenomenon, a cam girl performs live shows that are streamed by subscribers who are also afforded the opportunity to give ‘tips’ if they like what they see using a simplistic form of crypto-currency. Existing in the hazy, vitriolic and manipulative world of the internet, it’s an arena fraught with risk and frustration for those who choose to make a living this way, but it also has its own rules and culture. Loyal fans are encouraged to buy their favourite girls gifts from their Amazon wish lists, or even send them baked goods in the mail. Everyone involved gets something out of the transaction. Nudity and sexual activity isn’t even a prerequisite… but for those seeking bigger tips it’s among the surest ways of getting a bonus.
Cam focuses on Alice (Madeline Brewer), a young woman who goes by the online handle ‘Lola_Lola’ and who already has a loyal base at the opening of the film. The savvy screenplay by Isa Mazzei gets us on the hook early as Alice’s performance is seemingly gatecrashed by a troll trying to bribe her into genital mutilation. It is in fact a set-up, culminating in a moment of shock that readies the viewer for the dark turns to come. It also neatly sets up both Alice’s passion for performance, her ambition to break the community’s Top 50 girls, and establishes one or two die-hard fans; perfect red herrings for later.
With Alice’s world established – complete with how she hides her chosen profession from her mother (Melora Walters); neatly broaching how engrained shame is in the sex industry – Cam sets about its paranoiac central premise. Alice’s account appears to have been hacked as an imposter starts broadcasting in her place. This doppelgänger, posing as Lola_Lola, is indistinguishable from the real Alice, and is prepared to do anything to dominate the rankings. And its not just in Alice’s head; she illustrates the impossible double to some colleagues during a live stream. Something bizarre is going on, and it threatens to drive our heroine over the edge.
Alice’s double feels somewhat reminiscent of the surreal blending of nightmare TV and reality found in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and the ripest reading is that it represents a version of Alice that is prepared to go the distance for her ambitions; the id made flesh. Her other self is without inhibitions, and as she rises up the ranks, there’s a streak of projection and wish fulfilment about the scenario, even as the real Alice reacts with horror and aversion. Cam tries to be just as slippery as Videodrome with the practical mechanics of how the phenomena is happening. It aims for ambiguity – a popular choice in indie horror at present – yet it never really lands. The internal logic feels frustratingly questionable, even as it leads to a series of interesting and unsettling set pieces.
Far more insightful and contemplative are the observations Cam makes about the world it inhabits. The culture of trolling and its unwholesome psychological ramifications are probed, along with the unhealthier aspects of male fixation and objectification. Early in the film Alice is flattered to receive gifts, but acknowledges that even these (which include nipple tassels) are more for the pleasure of the giver than the recipient. Thoughtful they may be, but no gift in this scenario seems wholly altruistic. “Makes me feel like a lady,” she tells her friend, sarcastically.
With some dramatic licence (?) it seems as though a lot of these cam girls live close to one another, allowing for shared screen time without a Skype call. Through these interactions we also learn of rivalry between the girls, not least over repeat customers whose affections they vie for. Cam suggests a loss of empowerment occurring this way. One middle aged fan, Barney (Michael Dempsey), uses such jealousies to inflate his own self-worth, enjoying a sense of dominance. In turn, the girls can appear subservient to their fans, as men like Barney determine rank.
Madeline Brewer is the film’s anchor. She makes a living, breathing person out of Alice/Lola and her work is presented as a legitimate choice throughout – something she cares about and, when not judged by others, takes a great deal of pride in, even if the needs of the thriller determine that she go through the wringer for it. Notions of beauty as currency in these circumstances are legitimate, adding weight to some of the make-or-break choices Alice makes during the finale. While a continuing motif of mocked-up suicides is as much a comment on our lust for the forbidden or illicit as the torture-porn of Videodrome.
So while much of the doppelgänger material feels recycled from other sources too numerous to count, Cam excels by virtue of its fair depiction of an oft demonised subculture, and its Black Mirror-esque investigation of how sexuality is adapting to technology.