In Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s paranoid thriller “Cam,” an erotic webcam performer finds her followers stolen by a doppelganger who hijacks her channel, pushes the sexual envelope farther, and otherwise seems determined to destroy her life. Call it identity theft of a sexy, possibly supernatural kind.
There’s not much depth to this low-budget but resourcefully flashy enterprise, which is hyperactive in presentation to the brink of being grating. Nor is there much (if any) satisfactory resolution to the central mystery. But the combination of a sex-worker milieu, suspense mechanics and speed-of-the-internet pace should appeal to genre fans looking for something different — but not too different — from the norm. It certainly worked for Fantasia jurors, who gave the film their best screenplay and first feature prizes, and Netflix buyers, who acquired “Cam” from the Montreal-based genre fest.
In her all-pink home “studio,” Alice aka “Lola” (Madeline Brewer from “The Handmaid’s Tale”) runs the gamut of girlish yet “naughty” behaviors for a long-distance audience of presumably all-male fans. They spur her on — to doff clothes, spank herself, and so forth — by expending “tip” tokens, for which she’s careful to thank them each en route. At the start, one mysterious patron uses that economic clout to dare her into a seemingly suicidal act. But that shocking act turns out to be a theatrical stunt, complete with fake blood. While she’s onstage, so to speak, it seems there are few situations Alice isn’t prepared to take in stride.
Yet she’s frustrated in not being able to crack the “Freelivegirls” website’s top ranks, reluctantly agreeing to a dual show with a friendly colleague (Flora Diaz) at a sort of webcam bordello to push her ratings higher. Then something inexplicable occurs: Alice can’t access her own channel anymore, yet “Lola” continues to perform on it. At first the former thinks tapes are being repeated of old shows she doesn’t remember doing. But it soon becomes clear that this Lola 2.0 — an exact lookalike on an exact-replica “set” — is a separate entity and an active threat. Not only does she cross lines that are against Alice’s personal “rules,” she makes sure the “real” Lola’s hitherto-oblivious mother (Melora Walters) and younger brother (Devin Druid) discover her secret job in the most embarrassing and damaging ways possible.
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The site’s tech support team throws up their hands. Police are more caustically dismissive of a complaint that seems possibly delusional, and definitely somewhat self-incriminating. Alice initially suspects she may be getting victimized by a nasty webcam competitor (Samantha Robinson). Then she wonders about some persistent (as well as pathetic) fans, notably “Tinkerboy” (Patch Darragh) and “Barney” (Michael Dempsey), particularly as the former shows all signs of being an offline stalker. But the fear that something outside the realm of conventional impersonation or conspiracy gains strength as does Alice’s panic.
Screenwriter Mazzei has labored in the field depicted, and there’s an undeniable fascination in the film’s level of detailed insight into how such prurient (yet generally hands-off) sex work actually operates — as well as how at-odds it often is from its practitioners’ off-cam lives. Brewer’s committed performance etches a very ordinary young woman who may have been drawn to the field for the role-playing assumption of power and control that she’s far from owning elsewhere in her life. In fact, she barely seems to have any outside life. Certainly when her “Lola” identity is stolen, Alice fast becomes a nervous wreck, consumed with getting her preferred self (as well as meal ticket) back.
That pursuit is illustrated in terms that aren’t particularly scary, but have a frenetic drive amped up by all major visual contributors: notably Katelin Arizmendi’s busy lensing, Daniel Garber’s attention-deficit editing, Gates Bradley’s graphics animation, and Elena Lee Gold’s “custom emojis.” They create a colorful, claustrophobic world of instant gratification (or frustration) in which whatever takes place online barely has any relevance, let alone “reality.” (Even when she’s not performing, Alice is constantly glued to one screen or another.)
Where this digital labyrinth ultimately leads us, and our heroine, is something of a letdown: The fadeout suggests resolution without ever clarifying just what the hell was responsible for Alice’s ordeal. Of course, it’s acceptable among many paranoid thrillers to leave the source of the paranoia murky. Still, there’s a certain self-negating quality to “Cam” in the end, in that the events causing its heroine such grief don’t appear to really matter at last.
But reflective of its subject, the movie is content to exist on the stimulating surface, teasing us with the promise of something deeper while skirting around its delivery. Even that evasion feels apt in a way: Portraying those who consume and proffer fantasy images in lieu of real-world attachments, “Cam” indicts a culture of empty-calorie sex, thrills, and glamour at its most disposably extreme.
In tune with the candy-colored aesthetic of this cheap but welcoming sexual universe, the neatly crafted film’s soundtrack is dominated by synthy dance tracks with chirpy female vocals — more recent aural equivalents to the objectifying male-gaze standard of Britney Spears bouncing up and down in a schoolgirl uniform.