CAM (Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber) would make a perfect Black Mirror episode. Or maybe it’s just that every Black Mirror episode is a good film. Either way, in this case, Cam is a suspenseful psychological thriller about the dark relationship we have with technology today, in particular the online sex-work industry and identity theft.
Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a hard-working cam girl known to her fans as Lola (actually Lola_Lola). She has her eye on breaking into the top 50 cam girls of her site. As she performs her nightly show before a camera set up in a room of her house, dedicated viewers send virtual tips that translate into actual money. She converses with them, responding to their streaming chat, and develops “relationships” with the regulars, giving them exclusive access to her in private for the right price. Her specialties are cute-creepy shows in which she stages a mock suicide. But make no mistake, she is focused on reaching her goal. As Lola, she openly shares this desire with her viewers who are ultimately what is needed to get there, but as Alice, she meticulously records her daily performance along with the number of viewers and tips, studies her cam competition, and takes time to post videos of herself flirting and encouraging them. Alice is able to balance the identities she has by sticking to three main rules – no fake orgasms, no telling her viewers she loves them, and no in-person shows.
On the night she hits her target, things go unexpectedly awry. A cam girl rival challenges Alice and her ranking plummets. Alice is a fighter and she ups the ante, going from the safe space of her own house to the cam girl clubhouse where she pushes into new performance territory while still abiding by her rules. But then something even stranger happens. A doppelgänger suddenly appears on her channel. And while the doppelgänger has Lola’s face and appears to be in Lola’s house, she is subtly different from Lola. She certainly doesn’t follow the three rules. Alice tries to get back into her account only to discover she is blocked at all avenues. Identity theft. The answer to who has stolen her identity, and in particular her face and body, which belong to both Lola and Alice, is as unexpected and exciting as the path to recover them.
From start to finish, Cam is grippingly paced with the tension is dialed higher and higher in every scene. The smart plot functions simultaneously as a mystery, a horror piece, and a psychological thriller. All the characters are sympathetic, likable people. Even Alice’s two main customers, an out of work IT professional and a wealthy businessman, are more complicated than many other side antagonists. No one is a mere caricature. The performances by all actors are good, but especially Madeline Brewer who balances a life of many personalities — cutesy sexy seductress Lola_lola, ambitious Alice, and sister/daughter Alice.
While one should see this film for its fantastic plotting, pace, and acting, it is also a positive study of an often misrepresented industry. Writer Isa Mazzei worked as a cam girl, and so the profession is presented in a multi-faceted way. Alice isn’t exploited or mistreated. She maintains control over most facets of her job. The sexual component of the work doesn’t bother her. She performs what she wants and to whom she wants, able to shut down the performance or block those who make her uncomfortable. She’s not exploited or mistreated. If anything the site she works for is about as bland as any other corporate entity with its unhelpful tech support line. Her viewers tip generously and respond with not just emojis but actual gifts. Rivalry and friendships among cam girls are part of the job. The greatest perk isn’t just the monetary rewards, but also for those who do it, the attention and joy that comes with each performance. There is something satisfying in attaining popularity that feeling the love of having fans. Of course celebrity, including internet celebrity, is not without its drawbacks. We see the grind of having a time-and-life-consuming profession that consists of being in front of a camera and how workers in sex industries have to set firm boundaries because there is no limit to what viewers want. The hardest part, though, is probably not the creepers or the discomfort of running into clients in real life, but having to lie to family members about one’s lucrative line of work.
Overall, with elements of our lives ever more stored in cloud databases, identity theft a real threat, and on-line celebrity a thing, Cam also shows how today’s technologies can work against us. Alice relies on her character, but as a parable-warning for today’s world, Cam, like most of the episodes of Black Mirror, is a canary in the coal mine for a dystopic future.
Cam was featured as part of the Fantasia festival in Montreal. For details on other films and showtimes that continue until August 5 at Concordia University (1450 Maisonneuve), click HERE.