Director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei explore the complexities of online sex work with a fascinating thriller about a camgirl facing an identity crisis.
On the Internet, you can be anyone you want. CAM, the debut film from director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, asks, “What if someone on the Internet wants to be you?” This techno-thriller is a smart, claustrophobic and tense exploration of the terror of losing your identity.
Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), a camgirl working under the name Lola, runs a stream where she cultivates a loyal fanbase through unusual performances. One morning, after an intense show with another camgirl, she finds she’s unable to login to her account. She soon discovers that her stream has been stolen by a doppelganger named Lola (also Brewer). Before long, Lola begins to climb higher and higher in the rankings while Alice watches, horrified. After a Kafkaesque encounter with her host site’s support team and a demeaning experience with the police, Alice desperately searches to figure out who has stolen her identity.
The world of camgirls constructed by the film is one of almost magical artifice. Alice’s studio looks like a vaporwave version of Lynch’s Red Room from Twin Peaks. The camgirl “house,” where multiple camgirls can setup studios, are similarly decorated in dreamlike décor and lit by neon signs. After Alice’s identity is stolen, it’s hard to tell whether the alternate Alice is real, or is as fake as the sets she inhabits.
Mazzei used to work as a camgirl, and her experience shows through the film’s portrayal of Alice. The film doesn’t look down on Alice for her profession; instead, the film insists that she is an artist. The craft she puts into her sets and what she does on cam is innovative, and her dedication to be one of the top girls on the site seems to be driven as much by a desire to be the best at what she does as well as to make money. And yet, misogyny continually rears its ugly head in all aspects in her life, especially when she attempts to approach the authorities with her current predicament; she’s not taken seriously because of what she does for a living.
While the film is billed as a horror movie, it is more suspenseful than scary. As the film progresses, CAM gets more and more claustrophobic. Early in the film, Alice interacts with other camgirls and her family, but when she can’t seem to prove to others her identity is stolen, she becomes isolated and obsessed. Until the end, there are little clues as to who the identity thief could be, and Brewer gives Alice’s paranoia a great deal of verisimilitude. Alice puts herself in dangerous situations to find out what is happening to her, and it leaves the audience at the edge of their seats. While the reveal doesn’t quite live up to the buildup, the ride you take with Alice more than makes up for it.
The heart of CAM is the obsessiveness of fandom and the faux authenticity and immediacy that internet fame fosters. Even before her doppelganger appears, Lola is Alice’s simulacra, but more: more confident, outgoing, amiable. The Lola that Alice’s fans obsess over isn’t the actual Alice: it’s a mirror image that really doesn’t signify anything underneath. Likewise, once the duplicate Lola appears, Alice mirrors her fan’s obsession over the image and begins throwing hundreds if not thousands of dollars trying to get the doppelganger to do as Alice wishes.
This also underscores another aspect that CAM expertly explores: the level of intimacy expected by fans of Internet content creators. Whether it’s through the tips a camgirl gets from her viewers, or the monthly bit of coinage someone gets from Patreon (speaking of, you can become a Patron for Alcohollywood here), an online artist has fewer barriers between themselves and their content’s consumers. Because the artist depends so heavily on direct monetary contribution from their fans, they offer greater access than other celebrities would have to offer. We see this in the way Tinker, one of Alice’s online fans, says he loves her and stalks her: He believes the illusion of intimacy Alice fosters in return for his support is genuine. At the end of the day though, what we watch online isn’t really a person, but a persona*. CAM is one of very few films to explore the ways in which the Internet is changing our conception of fame.
While Netflix has had some mixed results in the past with the films billed under their moniker (think The Ridiculous 6 and Bright), don’t let prior offerings dispel you from watching CAM. This movie is reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s debut Perfect Blue, fans of that anime will find a lot to like. CAM manages to capture a fear that is timely and terrifying.
*Check out Shannon Strucci’s wonderful videos on parasocial relationships in the age of Youtube for a brilliant examination of this phenomenon.