There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through Netflix’s creepy new tech thriller Cam where audiences will think they have a pretty good handle on where the movie is headed. Alice (Madeline Brewer), a cam girl who goes by the online name “Lola,” is trying to figure out what’s going on with her account. It’s been hijacked by a woman who appears to be her doppelgänger, someone regularly performing live broadcasts in her name. And none of the fans who send her money can tell the difference.
Given the timely concerns about deepfakes and altered video, it’s natural to assume the film will eventually head toward some sort of explain-it-all climax, using technology and machine learning as a boogeyman, and dissipating all the tension and unnerving weirdness the film has built up until that point. But Cam doesn’t go that route. It passes up the clunky, obvious explanation on its way toward a more satisfying, sinister ending. It’s a clever move in a taut film that’s filled with clever moves. Cam focuses less on the real ways technology can be weaponized, and more on how vulnerable people can feel when their online identities are ripped away from them.
The film opens with Alice in the middle of a broadcast as Lola. She’s trying to crack the top 50 ranking of Free Girls Live, the website she broadcasts on. Along with teasing her fans with brief flashes of nudity, she tries elaborate, bloody stunts to garner interest. Alice is smart and trying to game the system by playing to people’s desire for the extreme, but her strategies add an additional layer of tension: she’s bordering on the taboo, and as some of her most rabid fans send her gifts, pay her for specific behavior, and pull her aside for lucrative private one-on-one chats, it feels like something could go awry at any moment.
When something bad finally does happen, it’s in a way Alice never sees coming. One morning she finds someone has replaced her on her own account. At first she thinks it’s a prank or a technical error, but it soon becomes clear that somebody — or something — has stolen her cam girl persona and is using it to rocket to the top of the rankings. Competitive fellow cam girls, stalking fans who show up in her town unannounced, her tech-savvy partner in crime; everyone is a suspect as Alice tries to uncover the mystery of what exactly is going on with her account.
The core premise is unsettling enough in the way it taps into fears of identity theft and the implications of losing a carefully curated online persona. Alice doesn’t just do cam girl work for an easy buck; she’s dedicated and focused. And while she’s keeping her job secret from her mother (Magnolia’s Melora Walters), she’s trying to earn enough money to prove it’s a worthwhile gig. The only person in her real life who knows what she’s up to is her brother, Jordan (Devin Druid, 13 Reasons Why), and she implores him to keep her secret until she can hit that threshold of success. Achieving success in her Lola persona has become a stand-in for Alice’s self-image, making the hijacking all the more terrifying — particularly when she gets trapped in a labyrinthian series of tech support phone calls with people who are unable to deal with the situation, and uninterested in trying.
Cam screenwriter Isa Mazzei has worked as a cam girl, and her script is filled with small details and insights that turn what could have been an exploitation-heavy premise into an insightful look at the profession. One of Alice’s competitors, “PrincessX” (Samantha Robinson), uses her own show as an opportunity to undermine Alice’s rankings. When Jordan’s high school friends discover his sister’s online handle, he has to deal with the social fallout. And Lola’s online fans get too close for comfort, bringing the constant threat of online misogyny and entitlement into the real world. The frame of the film is the creepy techno-thriller premise, but the stakes are consistently real and human, as Alice grapples with the loss of control and implications of having her identity, her carefully earned followers, and her income stream stolen.
Madeline Brewer’s lead performance goes a long way toward making all this work. She deftly brings two characters to life: Alice the young woman, and Lola the cam girl star. (Add the doppelgänger to the mix, and that actually makes three, but you get the gist.) The way Brewer delineates Alice from Lola boosts the film’s effectiveness: Lola is confident and fearless, deftly planning and executing her stunts on her climb to online fame. Alice, on the other hand, is everything Lola isn’t. She’s unsure how to handle the real-world implications of her job, and wants to make her family proud, even though she knows her mother wouldn’t approve.
Ironically, her mother is better equipped to clearly see the difference between the two versions of her daughter. The inevitable moment when Alice’s secret emerges should be a moment of clarity. Bringing Lola’s confidence into her real-world behavior lets Alice invent a more empowered, self-actualized version of herself. Her road to melding her identities — even if that means revealing the Lola personality as a fabrication — is a big part of what Cam is interested in thematically. The ideas aren’t explicitly spelled out, but they’re subtly present, providing an additional layer of character depth that takes the film well beyond its straightforward premise.
The movie does wander down a few unresolved narrative pathways, and while director Daniel Goldhaber, in his feature debut, gives this feature a polished sheen, there are moments where it’s hard to ignore that Cam is a low-budget independent film. Still, that mostly works to its advantage — many of the film’s sets are bare-looking cam girl rooms, cheaply decorated by the various characters — and it seems nitpicky to focus on minor complaints when so much of the film works so splendidly.
Cam never deals much with technology itself, and yet it’s an effective, unnerving techno-thriller focused almost entirely on the emotions intertwined with our online interactions. It’s more relatable and terrifying even than an average Black Mirror episode. Because the reasons Alice is facing a cam girl doppelgänger are never the point; the film is about the fear the situation instills in her, the ways it disempowers her, and the ways combating the scenario lets her resolve her internal dichotomies. In that sense, Cam has nothing to do with technology at all. It’s just about the struggles of trying to prove yourself and find an identity in a competitive, judgmental online environment. In 2018, that makes it infinitely relatable.