Notions of sexuality, identity, community and connection all get put under the microscope in the new (mildly, it must be said) erotic thriller Cam, which recently debuted on Netflix and played on the big screen as part of Melbourne’s Monster Fest.
Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer) works as a cam girl under the nom de strip of Lola. A rising star on her host ‘Freelivegirls’ website, she’s steadily climbing the leaderboard of popular girls, amassing a dedicated audience for her kinky online shows.
It’s a grind, though — scripted by former cam girl Isa Mazzei and helmed by first time feature director Daniel Goldhaber, Cam takes pains to map out the specific pressures of the online skin trade, be it the constant worry that your family will catch on as to how you’re paying the bills, the possibility that one of your devoted and lonely fans will breach the boundaries you’ve established, or the sheer, hour-eating clock-punching effort of staying online long enough to satisfy your audience and climb, increment by increment, the popularity ziggurat.
When we meet Alice, however, she’s managing it, charming, seducing, and gently cajoling her ‘guys’ to propel her into her site’s top 50 (via tip tokens), an achievement that earns a moment of jubilant celebration — before she’s suddenly and unexpectedly locked out of her account. The account is still active, though, and someone is on camera and still performing for the digital masses — and that someone looks exactly like Alice/ Lola.
Despite its marketing, Cam operates more in thriller mode than horror, as Alice works to unravel the mystery of her stolen online identity. The ultimate answer is fairly prosaic, but what’s fascinating about Cam is the journey it takes us on into the cam girl subculture. Alice is a sex worker, but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that she’s also an artist. Her shows are choreographed, production-designed, and performed. Her specific area of operation is the intersection between sex and death, and her most popular shows are effectively feigned snuff films in which she acts out suicide to the approval — and increasing donations — of her voyeuristic fans.
Alice has boundaries, though, a professional code she will not breach, and it isn’t long before the ersatz Lola is transgressing those lines, doing things on screen that our Alice would never do. It’s this element of Cam that is most intriguing, and most disturbing; while physical threats rarely manifest in the film, social standing and the very notion of our personhood are constantly under threat. Cam cannily explores the ever-present anxiety of living life online: the nested-box nature of our online and ‘real world’ personas, the possibility of being shamed for things said or done in virtual as opposed to physical space, and the more dreadful possibility of being censured for things we didn’t actually do, but only appeared to. The film dallies with the very current notion of ‘deepfake’ technology — AI-generated fake videos of real people — but the issues it raises are as old as social media.
This subtextual woolgathering is all well and good — and also a prime example of genre fiction’s ability to process contemporary concerns — but it’d be so much navel-gazing if Cam didn’t present us with a strong character to pull us through its narrative and thematic machinations. Luckily we have Madeline Brewer, The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), who builds up a fully realized, three-dimensional character for us to bond with. Alice is victimized (otherwise there’d be no story, right?) but she’s not a victim; she’s self-assured, intelligent, ambitious, and has a firm grasp on who she is and what she does. Brewer does great work here, and it’s worth remembering that she’s playing at least three different versions of the same character, which is no small feat. Director Goldhaber smartly lets Brewer’s performance do the heavy lifting, adopting a reasonably restrained, almost classical approach to the material that forefronts story and character over intrusive visual flourishes.
Importantly, the film refuses to cast judgment on her for her profession; indeed, it almost refuses to titillate the audience with her work. Given that Cam is set in the sex industry, it has no time for cheap thrills. The actual thrills we do get, however, are more than enough. Planting its flag at the crossroads between technology and society, Cam can’t help but feel more than a little Black Mirror-ish, but that’s okay — it’s an assured, smart, deftly written little thriller that has much more on its mind than the average straight-to-Netflix potboiler.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson