Philly Film Fest Review: ‘Cam’ is far from perfect, but still an intriguing thriller with some substance (no major spoilers)

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Madeline Brewer is Alice, a webcam girl whose account gets hacked and exploited by someone who looks exactly like her in Cam (Blumhouse) 

If you find yourself digging Black Mirror and Cronenberg-style films like Videodrome, Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s upcoming Cam could be the next fairly decent “when technology attacks!” thriller film for you.

Twenty-something Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a webcam model, who has transformed her bedroom into a pink, Claire’s-meets-Victoria’s-Secret, lush fantasy stage for her on-camera live performances, involving quasi-stripping and playfully flirting with her viewers.  Despite her fixation on making the list of the “top” girls on the website she performs for, Alice (who goes by the persona “Lola” when she’s camming) has her limits: no nudity, no phony “I love you” declarations to her patrons, among other things.  Right off the bat, she comes across as ordinary and likable, thanking her patrons as they tip her with coin tokens, and lovingly petting her cat and eating pizza after she signs off.  Brewer effectively gives Alice a portrayal that feels ordinarily girl-next-door, (who just happens to take her clothes off and spanks herself in front of strangers) to make some cash.

Frustrated that her ranking seems to be slipping into obscurity on the site, Alice decides to partake in a more painfully sexually explicit video with another cam girl, hoping to regain some exposure (and more token coins.)  After she stays overnight at the girl’s house and wakes up to check her ranking, she notices she cannot log in to her account.  When she sees that a woman who looks exactly like her is performing under her Lola name, and the site keeps denying her access by locking her out– claiming that her account is already occupied– Alice is understandably horrified.  This faux Lola 2.0 happens to be way more sexually adventurous with her performances than real Lola, quickly gaining higher rankings than Alice had, while exploiting her “rules,” including hardcore nudity.  The Lola 2.0 becomes more and more of a threat to Alice’s existence, as she/it also attempts to “out” her to her loved ones who aren’t yet aware of her webcam pornography.  From this point forward, Cam eerily forays into a mystery thriller about what exactly is happening to Alice’s stolen online identity, while she continues to be increasingly humiliated with little help from anyone else.

The Good:   Thankfully, the positives in Cam outweigh the cons.  The film is entirely told from a female perspective, and, while it does not necessarily celebrate a woman’s sexual liberation, it does remind us of the unfair dangers than women go through to be sexual and to be safe in any form of work, (let alone cam girl work) while men become predatory and take advantage of it.  Because the screenplay was written by Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl herself, the lifestyle being portrayed onscreen feels authentic.  From the very beginning, you are with lead Alice, and you are never made to judge her or to feel uncomfortable with her choice of work– she always feels endearing.  Because the film was written by a woman, (along with many other female producers and workers on set) it never suffers from blatant male gaze, even with a male director in charge.  During the discussion after the screening, Director Daniel Goldhaber even mentioned how Mazzei would call out any form of objectifying, right down to positioning of camera angles when shooting the camming scenes.  Yes, nudity does creep into a film about cam girls, however, it never feels equated to cheap thrills for the audience.  The shots of the women “performing” rarely feel exploitative; you typically feel like you’re just watching ordinary women who could be your friends or family trying to make some money (albeit in an unorthodox way.)  The filmmakers even make sure to explicitly call out the more nauseating levels to the male gaze, especially within a scene involving two condescending and unhelpful cops Alice enlists to assist her (which was arguably my least favorite scene because of how unrealistic I *thought* this scenario was).  Apparently, this scene was ripped right from experiences that Mazzei has had for herself from male authoritative figures, according to Goldhaber and actress Brewer.  Sadly, even the line that Alice is asked, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do?” is a question that Mazzei had been asked so many times in her life that she and Goldhaber knew they had to include it within the script.  As Goldhaber explained, “Cops are bad at supporting cyber crime and sex work,” and Cam wastes little time addressing this.

Without giving too much away, I was pleased that Cam fails to go down the Unfriended direction, which is what I feared from 20-minutes in.  The “twist” is not a paranormal entity stealing Alice’s identity– it is smarter than that.  Instead, Cam has more to say, aside from its sex worker-positivity and postmodern feminist perspective– it wants to remind us of our unhealthy reliances on social medias (even the porno kinds) and our addictions to the validation highs that we get off of them.  Cam addresses some of our biggest fears in our tech-savvy world, mainly, What the hell do we do when someone hacks into our accounts, which harbor integral parts of our lives we keep hidden from the ‘real’ world?  Cam serves as a reminder than nothing is ever safe on the Internet, especially our secretive, private lives.

The Bad:  The first two acts of the film are considerably more intriguing than its final third act.  Cam’s initial 60 minutes are very well-shot and suspenseful, as you find yourself just as invested in figuring out who the hell is behind this, as Alice herself is.  However, by the time Alice starts figuring out the central mystery (which is satisfactory) I became slightly bored.  The idea behind this Black Mirror-style conclusion is a step away from genius, but the execution is not 100% clear– the ending became more sensical after the filmmakers explained their intentions further after the screening, which is problematic.  Admittedly, I had two distracting men sitting next to me that perhaps caused me to have missed a line or two, so I’ll give it a second watch to see if it holds up better upon second viewing.  Furthermore, the dialogue is a bit cringey, along with several superficial performances from its supporting cast that never quite succeeds at audience sympathy or relatability that lead actress Brewer does.  Particularly, a performance by Melora Walters, who plays Alice’s mother, feels forced when she tries to show support for her daughter’s “female empowerment” work that she did not previously know about.  I wasn’t buying it.  For a film that wants to reach a certain level of depth through its themes, its shallow aspects become frustrating throughout, which I fear will make it unmemorable under the shadows of films that tackle this stuff way more effectively.

The Ugly:  While I very much appreciated the filmmakers’ commentary about how far Internet personalities will go to gain followers, subscribers, likes, and (in this case) payment tokens– watching young women faking violent suicides while being spurred on by repulsive male viewers was tough to swallow.  But that was the point– we are willing to exploit pornographic violence against women to such extremes, that some women are willing to do the violence against themselves, just so they are at least in control of it– and that indeed should be tough for us to swallow.  So I suppose it worked.

Overall, Cam is a fairly interesting directorial/screenplay debut.  It is one that is in need of major tweaks here and there; contains a few thrills; and is surprisingly focused on commentary that is more thought-provoking than you would expect from a movie about online web porn.  You’ll be able to watch Cam on Netflix starting November 16th.

rating: 7/10

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