If you asked us if it were possible to do a feminist take on a Brian De Palma movie, we’d have been skeptical—until Cam came along, that is. This slick debut from director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei hinges on a rather brilliant inversion of De Palma’s signature approach and themes: It’s still a boldly stylized identity thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mode, and it’s still full of voyeuristic, sexually charged imagery. The difference is, the story is told from the perspective of the woman being watched, rather than the men watching her.
That would be our heroine Alice (Madeline Brewer), a.k.a. Lola_Lola, young, intelligent, and ambitious, who makes her living doing camgirl shows from a curtained room in her sprawling, half-empty suburban house somewhere in Arizona. Mazzei drew on her own experiences as an ex-camgirl for the script, which makes clear that sex work is a job like any other, with its own fringe benefits, occupational hazards, and daily routines. Alice works hard, playing the supportive online girlfriend to her regular clients and continually dreaming up novel schtick for her nightly performances. Her goal is to hit the top 50 on the site that hosts her shows (and takes half of her money)—then, eventually, to be No. 1. She also keeps her life strictly compartmentalized: Her followers don’t know about her family, and vice versa.
When Alice wakes up one morning to find that a mysterious digital double is already online and has locked her out of her account, it’s an ordeal both specific to camming and universal to the 21st-century condition. Alice’s livelihood depends on being able to log on, and the indignities she suffers in her attempts to reclaim her channel—and, therefore, her life—parallel the desperation that’s tacitly encouraged in the highly competitive webcamming industry. But although Alice’s materialism and ambition initially give Cam shades of a morality tale, sex work and her drive to succeed at it are never scapegoated as the source of her problems.
If anything, it’s our merciless cultural exaltation of “the grind” that’s to blame. Early on in the film, Alice complains that she’d have to perform 24/7 to truly get ahead, a sentiment that could apply to anyone from an Uber driver to a freelance web developer. The empty-eyed doppelgänger that’s stolen her identity never sleeps, never gets hungry, never has a cold or a bad day. It’s a gig economy nightmare as much as a sex industry one. And in the age of Instagram and Twitter (both of which are conspicuously absent from the film), who among us doesn’t project a carefully curated version of themselves online? What would you do if someone stole your social media accounts and started saying and doing things that you would never say or do? When you strip away the sexy costumes and creepy clients with pinky rings, that’s the essence of Alice’s plight.
Mazzei’s script and Goldhaber’s direction complement each other beautifully, with true-to-life details like the tacky dollar-store carpet that decorates Alice’s camming room and the pink taser she keeps in her car playing off of—and enhancing—the naturalistic dialogue. The film accelerates rapidly in its second half, entering into David Lynch-by-way-of-Unfriended territory as Alice uncovers a shocking, seemingly supernatural clue to her double’s identity. This particular thread ends up getting lost as Cam hurtles toward its techno-surrealist finale, making this one of the rare cases where a few extra minutes of exposition would have helped the film rather than hurt it.
Although Cam does abandon a few shards of its fractured-mirror narrative, its neon-drenched cinematography keeps things visually stimulating, and the brisk pacing similarly ensures that viewers never get bored. But what makes the film truly magnetic is Brewer’s darkly humorous, intensely vulnerable performance as Alice, particularly in a harrowing scene where she watches her double stage a fake suicide on camera. It’s the kind of role that actresses crave: a confident, independent woman who doesn’t wait around for a man to save her, but is complex enough not to fit into the stereotypical “strong female character” mold. The fact that she humanizes the often misunderstood world of sex work is just a bonus.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Fantasia Film Festival.