LOS ANGELES — In the past, filmmakers like Hitchcock or Michael Powell have recognized the inherent voyeuristic quality of cinema and toyed with it. No other art form works to create an illusion of intimacy like the moving image. This has only been complicated by the internet, which allows us to not just be looked at the way film does but to directly perform to the entire world. There’s ripe artistic possibility in exploring the interplay between projection and identity within these spaces, with the extra layer of movie performance added onto it. The new horror film Cam understands this potential, and wrings both scares and some visual ingenuity out of it.
Madeline Brewer plays Alice, who makes a living as “Lola,” a webcam model. She’s diligently working to break into the top 50 on her hosting site, pulling a variety of stunts for the benefit of her loyal viewers. One day, however, she finds herself locked out of her account — but someone is still streaming from it. Someone who looks exactly like her and is operating out of what looks like her apartment. Gradually, it becomes clear that Lola has taken on a mind of her own.
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, Cam makes explicit the divide between the real world and the camming one. The former is shot in a subdued manner, with desaturated colors. The latter, a realm of coy sexual playtime, is rendered with vivid reds and purples and blues, and shot with more overtly theatrical angles. The segregation isn’t absolute, though. The two styles will bleed together when Alice is working with her fellow models but not yet on-camera, suggestion the internal warm-up that goes into the work, or how the glamour of the cam girl persona drifts into the background of everyday life.
Cam jumps off from an all-too-real sort of nightmare — “I can’t get into my account!” — and uses it as a ladder to others, including doxxing and stalking. Screenwriter Isa Mazzei, herself a former webcam model, based the script on her own experiences. While every woman fears intrusion into her personal life from her online presence, these anxieties are amplified for sex workers, particularly as viable internet options get closed down by new government strictures.
The movie ultimately taps into an even deeper fear, though. The runaway Lola is an uncanny imitation of reality. She’s an entity without interiority, acting solely the way Alice did when she was playing the role, like an AI with a faulty script. Lola’s fans don’t notice anything amiss. Cam asks what you would do if the self you presented to the internet was its own independent being. The climax has Alice confront the gulf between her as a self-actualized human and the inherent vacancy of Lola, setting up a mirror, monitor, and webcam to create an endless series of reflections. The hall of mirrors confrontation is a well-worn thriller trope, and this is a novel spin on it, bringing dynamism to a scene that’s playing out over the web.
That ending is also a more literal expression of what’s going on beneath Cam the whole time. There’s always the screen on which the viewer is watching the movie itself in addition to the screens the characters are looking at or playing for. (It’s deeply appropriate that this is coming out on Netflix.) All these characters are themselves projections, not put out for titillation, but artificial nonetheless. In the modern cultural landscape, this story is just one more window on your computer. What are you pretending to be in the others?
Cam will be screening at AFI Fest in Hollywood on November 10 and 12, and will be released on Netflix on November 16.