Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Screenplay: Isa Mazzei, Daniel Goldhaber
Starring: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters
Review: David Stephens
Here’s another original genre film that Netflix managed to nab after some very positive reviews from the festival circuit. Showing at Fantasia and the London Film Festival earlier this year, “Cam” is a psychological thriller with a genre twist, and has a theme that is very much part of modern society. It’s a co-production from Blumhouse and is the first feature-length film from director Daniel Goldhaber, who also worked on the story. It was originally written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei, who provides a realistic eye into the world of the online sex industry and cam peep shows. Whilst there have been some recent attempts to incorporate similar scenarios into a horror movie, “Girlhouse” (2014) being the most obvious one, this one takes a more cerebral approach and provides a disturbingly surreal atmosphere. The film headlines actress Madeline Brewer (from “Orange is the New Black” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and also features Samantha Robinson (from cult hit “The Love Witch”). Now streaming on Netflix in the U.K. and U.S.A. territories, YGROY takes a literal peep at the film.
“Lola_Lola” (Brewer) is the up-and-*ahem*-coming newbie on “FreeGirls.Live”. The lively cam girl chats with her clientele and frolics with teddy bears (amongst other things) during her live online sessions. But she’s desperate to rise in the rankings of the porn website, and she’s not afraid to get pretty dark in order to get more viewers and tips and finally break into the “Top 50”. In real life, “Lola” is actually Alice Ackerman, who’s keen to keep her profession and private life from her mother… or at least until she’s ranked higher. Although occasional being stymied by dirty tactics from her rival PrincessX (Robinson) or unwanted offline attentions from one client, things are going pretty well. That is until she sees “Lola” performing online… only it isn’t her! Alice is forced to investigate the origin of her perfect duplicate and recover her own identity, as the mystery deepens and the real world impact of her online alter-ego increases. WTAF? *sad face*, etc.
“Cam” is a clever update on some familiar themes in the genre. It could be compared on the surface to “evil doppelganger” offerings like “The Man Who Haunted Himself” (1970) or more sci-fi based fare like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. But the emphasis here is on the darker aspects of social media, and the way we project our personas onto it. It makes for a pleasingly unusual excursion into paranoia, which can’t help but be compared to “Twin Peaks” and other David Lynch universes. The first and most obvious thing that impacts on the viewer is Alice’s obsession with clambering up the ranks, an ultimately pointless exercise that only fuels her own ego and even impacts on the way she’s going to break the news to her mother (“I’ll tell her when I’m in the Top 10”). This has an obvious parallel with society’s current need to accrue as many “likes” or “followers” on whatever social media platform they value and diarise their life on. The lengths that Lola/Alice goes to, in order to please the darker desires of her viewers and increase her audience, remains one the more disturbing elements of the narrative. Whilst splashing about in a paddling pool or eating steak with her hands is relatively harmless, the more ghoulish acts aren’t so wholesome and are continued in earnest by the new “Lola”.
You can’t discuss “Cam” without acknowledging the performance by Brewer, which is truly breakout stuff. Totally carrying the movie and running the full gauntlet of emotions, it’s an excellent piece of work by the actress. All the more so, given the fact that she has to play a caricature of her original character at points. The cleverest aspect is the difference between “Lola” and Alice herself. “Lola” is a wafer-thin personality who embodies what her viewers expect her to be. She’s entirely vacuous, but manages to show some credible emotion when blowing kisses to her fans or telling them that she loves them. By contrast, Alice has pandered endlessly to her watchers, but can’t bring herself to show or fake genuine love and affection for them. This is showcased by a great sequence towards the end, which totally works due to the acting of Brewer. It’s a clever and incisive bit of commentary, not only on the online sex industry itself, but also ultimately on the way we create “versions” of ourselves online that are false identities. And at the end of the day, “Cam” is about a fear of losing control of that faux identity, and the worry of it taking over our “real lives” and basically tearing it apart.
The genre aspect is mostly of the psychological variety, but it is surprisingly tense at some points. This is particularly true by the time you reach the innovative denouement, which becomes positively knuckle-chewing as you never know what direction it’s going to take. However there are a couple of “bloody” moments, and one nasty injury detail that is queasily effective. By and large though, the horror/thriller aspect comes from fear of the unknown and the implications of what’s happening. Without spoiling details, you shouldn’t expect underlined explanations, and like most films that are invariably classed as “Lynchian”, there is a fair amount of ambiguity going on. So don’t sit down and look for a straightforward movie that can be easily classified. The final sequence can even be described as empowering or depressing depending on your viewpoint. As such, it’s the kind of experience that you’ll find surprisingly compelling and clever, without actually being knocked out by the concept or the content. There are no easy answers that are drip-fed to the viewer, but you’ll possibly find yourself thinking about it long after the credits roll.
In summary, “Cam” is another worthy effort that should be tracked down on the streaming channel, and marks itself as being well above the norm for a genre thriller. It’s certainly not a seedy exploitation title, and explores some big social themes in a thrilling manner, much like the lauded “Black Mirror” series. So fans of Lynch and Charlie Brooker need to take a look. The performance of Brewer should also be considered an attraction with some exemplary character work. It’s not a massive game-changer, but it is clever and thrilling, and has plenty of valid things to say about its chosen themes. It’s also likely to become a future cult title and appear on many peoples “best of” lists for 2018. So get ahead of the curve. Two things to end on; 1) Thank God it wasn’t a bio-pic about David Cameron & 2) Who the hell has a sexual fetish for Piñata?!