Falling well short of its intention to become a De Palma indebted flick for the digital age, the disappointing and tough-to-stomach thriller Cam almost succeeds in becoming captivating viewing thanks to an exceptional leading performance and an intriguing premise. It’s just too bad the the film continues to buckle under its desire to be as edgy and nasty as possible, forsaking any sense of real development for cheap shocks and increasingly idiotic and nonsensical twists, turning a film that could’ve said something constructive about the nature of sex work and online identities and turns Cam into just another dumb-dumb horror flick.
Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer) works as a cam-girl, meaning someone who uses their webcam to act out the sexual fantasies and kinks of various online voyeurs for tips. She’s starting to gain some notoriety, devoted fans, and recognition on her domain of choice under her stage name, Lola, and she’s gunning to become one of the website’s top ten most viewed cam-girls. Not long after she cracks a personal milestone of getting into the top fifty content providers, her account is hacked, and a doppelganger has taken over her act, escalating it to bloodier and more uncomfortable extremes than the ones Alice had to employ just to goose her numbers. Unable to get any help from website administrators, her supposed fans, or the police, Alice has to figure out a way to outsmart her usurper before it destroys her life forever.
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by close friend Isa Mazzel, who once worked as a cam-girl, Cam balances a deliberately icky and uncomfortable tone by crafting a genuinely likable heroine at the centre of it all. Phenomenally played by Brewer – who naturally also plays the fraudulent version of Lola – Alice speaks a good deal of truth to the experience of online sex workers in the film’s opening moments. Having to openly court some fans for extra tips, while attempting to duck others that could be more problematic, and always trying to figure out new methods for attracting more viewers, Cam makes the protagonist’s plight appropriately exhausting. Alice isn’t only a sex worker, but someone trying to make an honest, sometimes unfairly stereotyped living in the new gig economy. Within this character is an unusual duality. Alice refuses to “fake it till she makes it” (both in a creative and sexual sense), preferring to be successful on her own terms; rigorously keeping notes on viewer feedback and streaming numbers. That makes the intrusion of this interloper all the more frustrating for Alice. The fraud isn’t merely lost income. The fraud is also trampling on her creative freedoms and rights.
The first major stumbling point of Cam is that it takes far too long to get around to any of these points, initially seeming like a film that was going to both subvert common misconceptions about sex workers while also piling on the misery. Refreshingly, however, Cam remains interesting since it’s made known early on that Alice isn’t suffering any sort of psychotic break, and that something else is copying her on-air mannerisms. Cam turns into a whodunit of sorts where Alice attempts to suss out her doppelganger, unsure if the culprit is a fan, rival cam-girl, or something supernatural. During this section of the film, a lot of the wit and perceptiveness that was present early on in Cam falls away in favour of a plodding, increasingly miserable to watch, and not even all that shocking thriller that feels like it’s killing time putting the lead character through hell before a big final reveal.
There’s a pinpoint moment where one can sense Cam going off the rails, and while I won’t spoil it, I will note that it’s reminiscent, but not a carbon copy of something out of Unfriended. It’s probably not that surprising when one notes that Cam and Unfriended are both Blumhouse productions, but unlike the latter, Goldhaber’s film doesn’t unfold solely on a computer desktop. Any desire to talk about larger implications of the film’s plot or any kind of subtext are largely abandoned around that point, and Cam devolves into an uninteresting, low energy, and curiously style-free thriller. While Mazzei’s material suggests the kind of transgressive, openly sexualized, and nasty thrillers that Brian De Palma made throughout the early 1980s, it’s only at the very end of Cam that Goldhaber seems to pick up on this, with the rest of the film looking virtually indistinguishable from any other direct to video genre effort.
In the earlier moments of Cam, Mazzei’s script boasts plenty of witty character beats and musings on society in general, like watching girls performing in a live sex show nodding to someone else off camera at their choice of take-out menus or Alice’s look of befuddlement when she realizes that eating a steak dinner with her bare hands gets her more viewers than ones where she bodily harms herself. It also sets up Alice with a rich family life, including a nice supporting role for Melora Walters as her mother and Devin Druid as a strangely supportive younger brother. Alice also has to contend with the increasingly erratic behaviours of her two best customers: a pushy, businesslike type (Michael Dempsey) and a twitchy, sweaty, awkward guy (Patch Darragh), both of them considerably older. All of this backstory suggests something greater than what Cam ultimately ends up being, building to a disappointingly apathetic conclusion that’s cleverly realized on a visual level and totally empty on a narrative one.
I’m also not convinced that Cam is half as empowering as it thinks it is. Initially beginning as a compelling examination of how people mentally and physically suffer to make a living with their art, Cam’s tonal switch into something that’s nasty simply for the sake of being nasty ends up coming across as inadvertently judgmental. While we’re meant to jeer all the people admonishing Alice for her career choices, the film also does nothing to speak out against them, which makes me fear that the message of Cam will be utterly lost on the people most likely to watch it: young males who like their scares with a side of titillation. The pivot into pure and admittedly unoriginal horror movie territory makes Goldhaber’s approach the star of the show, and not any commentary that could have arisen from the script in gentler or more transgressive hands.
Cam, like a lot of the acts Alice and Lola mount to pull in viewers, dares you at every turn to look away, and it’s a testament to Mazzei’s premise that one wants to find out where all of this is heading and to Brewer’s overwhelmingly committed and emotional leading performance that it stays watchable. While the script ultimately craps out and the ultimate endgame will leave viewers wondering if that was all they were going to get, Brewer leaves a lasting impression. She’ll leave viewers coming away from this more satisfied than the film itself will.
Cam is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Check out the trailer for Cam: