At this point in time, there are so many people who interact with the world via electronic screens that real life can seem unreal by comparison. This concept is at the heart of Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s Cam, a film that shows what happens when those screens take on a life of their own.
Feeling like a more fully fleshed-out episode of Black Mirror, Cam’s window into reality is even more self-reflexive: Mazzei, the screenwriter, based the central character of Alice on her own experiences as a cam girl. The fact that director Goldhaber directed Mazzei’s online porn at one point adds yet another layer of authenticity to the film.
The premise — something to which everyone with a Facebook account can relate — is straightforward (until it’s anything but). What happens when you get locked out of your account and you can’t get back in?
Alice (Madeline Brewer) is Lola, a cam girl who is desperately trying to improve her rank on FreeGirlsLive.com. On screen, she’s cute and bubbly; offscreen, she’s terrified of failure. It’s not hard to see why. If Lola’s success depends on Alice’s personality and willingness to go that extra step, then any drop in rank is a direct reflection of Alice’s worth as a person. At least, that’s the implication.
It seems so obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but the simplicity of this concept is brilliant. Cam takes generations of gender-based social conditioning — women are only valued for their looks/sexuality and must compete with other women to improve their status — and condenses it into a webcam and an internet connection premise. Alice does try to keep her real life and her cam girl life separate. Her brother knows how she makes money but her mother doesn’t. Alice says she wants to keep that a secret until she cracks the top 10; the threat of her mother’s negative reaction remains unspoken.
However, real life does seep in through people like Tinker, one of Alice’s fans who wants to make their relationship real, despite Alice’s attempts to keep him at arm’s length. Yet it’s only when things become absolutely surreal that Alice’s world splinters into dangerous shards. She gets locked out of her FreeGirlsLive account then realizes that someone who looks and sounds exactly like her is live streaming from her room on her channel. Her cam girl friends think it’s a glitch; tech support is no help, and neither are the cops who treat her much like a rape victim who asked for it.
What’s most troubling about this chain of events isn’t just how believable it all is, it’s the realization that Alice’s life as Lola is the only real life she has. This becomes more disturbing when the new Lola is more popular than the old one. Someone has taken over Alice’s life and is doing a better job of living it than Alice ever did. Talk about imposter syndrome.
Cam is an uncomfortable watch, despite its absolutely dazzling visuals and outstanding production design. The drab disarray of Alice’s non-Lola world makes it obvious why she would choose to spend most of her time on FreeGirlsLive. The irony, of course, is that Alice is locked out of her fake life by a fake Lola, but that fake existence is far more comforting than her real one. That helps the ending of Cam make sense, but it doesn’t make it any less bitter of a pill to swallow.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.