When Alice is Lola, she’s fearless – normally a shy girl-next-door type, when taking on her cam girl persona, it’s like she finally becomes the cute and giggly confident little queen she always knew she could be. A better version of herself. A more relaxed, yet determined, casually cavalier version of herself. But what happens when the upholstered online identity you’ve created for yourself takes on a life of its own? What is one to do when the internet life you’ve fostered grows up and talks back to you? In Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, a Lynchian nightmare is unleashed onto the heightened, fuchsia-infused world of sex workers, and nothing will be the same.
It all starts with Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer)’s obsession with becoming one of the top fifty cam girls on her adult entertainment website. Going to such extremes as faking her own death, Alice will stop at nothing to up her ranking, even if it means infringing on one of her sacred rules and engaging in a dual show. Although this engagement ultimately gets her what she wants, she wakes up the following morning to discover something strange – she can’t log into her account. In fact, it appears that somebody has stolen her online identity – and the girl looks just like her. In a strange twist of events, somehow, a complete duplicate has replaced Alice on her show, and is live streaming in a much more exposed and carefree manner. Now, Alice has to figure out how to out the imposter, reclaim her account, and end the charade once and for all, before this new and improved “Lola” steals absolutely everything Alice has worked so hard to achieve.
Written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber, Cam is a fascinating and surreal deep dive into the complex universe of social media platforms and the intricate and undervalued life of a sex worker. In a world where nearly every person – or at least every person with a smartphone – has a Twitter handle, or an Instagram account, or a Facebook, it only makes sense that eventually the sex industry would jump on the bandwagon and drum up a way for customers to conveniently carry on conversations with beautiful women in exchange for gainful employment. By providing an unbiased glimpse into the everyday routine of model Alice and her frenemies’ Baby (Imani Hakim), Fox (Flora Diaz) and PrincessX (Samantha Robinson) lives, Cam shows how sex workers really aren’t that different from the rest of us, thus highlighting the ridiculously dated way society tries to separate itself from what very basic Christian rhetoric deems a sinful way to earn a buck.
Not only does Cam show the way in which sex workers are underappreciated and unfairly scrutinized, but it also exposes the terrifying way that law enforcement handles claims of sexual abuse. There’s a scene in the film where Alice calls the police and tries to explain how a stranger has stolen her identity, but when the cops show up, they don’t take her seriously, brushing the entire incident off, one officer even going so far as to come on to Alice and suggestively ask if she ever meets up with her clients in real life. It’s a sickening moment, but a necessary one, as it highlights how often a sex worker’s claims of assault will be disregarded by people in power who don’t believe that these women can be sexually abused.
Perhaps most importantly thematically, this is a movie that sheds light on all of us as an internet-obsessed culture, and how social media warps our perception of the world to the extent that we are no longer able to distinguish fantasy from reality. When we create online personas, no matter which type of accounts they may be, we are only showing one side of ourselves, and Alice’s Lola is only an exaggeration of that idea. It begs the question of how much power we’re really giving these caricatures of ourselves, and why we so desperately seek the approval of strangers that we’re willing to spend hours enhancing fictitious characters for the mere reward of several “likes”. It’s a fascinating character study brought to life by Mazzei’s gut-punching script and Goldhaber’s sharp direction, a duo whose combined efforts ultimately create a wickedly beguiling exploration of the cybernation we’ve created and the damage its done to our psyche as a people.
Of course, the main reason why this tumble down the rabbit hole is so enthralling is due to Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale)’s very personal performance, which allows the audience to relate to a circumstance which they may never have even previously considered. It speaks volumes that Brewer is able to take a polarizing story about a taboo subject and turn it into a significant commentary on society’s addiction to social media and instant gratification, especially given that Brewer has no professional training as an actor and only recently entered the game with her first role in 2013 as Tricia Miller on Orange is the New Black. Her range is evident in this highly stylized thriller as she floats back and forth between the nail-biting Alice she presents to her loving mother and brother at home, and the playfully wild and skillfully ferocious ladder climber she becomes once she takes on the title of Lola, the cam girl. The strength and vulnerability which she bobs between gracefully creates an empathetic human being that’s hard not to relate to. Brewer is an exciting up-and-comer, and this might be her best role yet.
The only real issue with Goldhaber’s directorial debut is how one-dimensional Lola’s doppelganger appears to be. The audience learns that this demon has devoured online personas before, stealing identities and gobbling up cam girls’ social handles by the dozen, but where exactly did the entity originate? How exactly does it work, and what is its ultimate goal? How is one of Lola’s creepy online stalkers, Tinker (Patch Darragh) connected to this creature? Despite the fact that these questions are never really sufficiently answered, Cam still manages to be a captivating peek into the world of sex workers, and an important conversation starter about our dangerous tendency to perceive what we see online as real life, and the consequences of such irrational assumptions.
This review originally ran during the Fantasia Film Festival on Aug. 7, 2018.