What have you done for a Like? I’ve re-edited this intro about six times, so many changes, hoping to, what, impress someone? Perhaps find the one kernel of truth about our relationship to social media, all the while editing out my most genuine feelings for the hope that I might better represent myself as a critic. We’re subconsciously erasing our personas when we interface online, constantly shifting into the version of ourselves we believe in, the story we tell others about who we are and what we do. Instead of offering our unreserved opinion and unique experience of ourselves, we’re far more likely to cater to an idea of what others may want us to be – being socially fit and desirable to engage with on a public level. We can write and rewrite until we have taken ourselves completely out of our work, or can find our truth, and share it with the world on our own terms.
Cam is a film that faces our social anxieties in an honest and upfront way. It has not edited its own voice out. Instead, its writer Isa Mazzei, formerly a camgirl herself, has written a stunning identity horror film about losing yourself to your online identity. Alice (Madeline Brewer) loves putting on subversive shows for her online chat. In her curtained off sanctuary, she teases and plays with the men watching her feed, giving herself to the performance, going as far as faking her own death for tips and attention. She performs in a smartly designed ecosystem of other women, giving all of themselves for the divided attention of their audience. Just as she’s finally climbing the camgirl ladder, she gets replicated by deepfake technology which takes over her channel, and her online self takes on a life of its own.
There is a startling moment of realization in Cam where we see our online selves for whom they really are. Alice cannot help but watch as her computerized self ups the ante and creates progressively more viral and compromising shows. It draws the unwanted attention of everyone she cares about. There is a kind of missing logic here, where we need just one scene to establish that there is an algorithm repository that’s drawing on everyone’s experiences on the webcam site, and perhaps an explanation of how they begin to act independently. In interviews, it seems that there was a segment there that was deleted. Again, when we over-edit our art, we remove a small portion of who we are and our purpose for making it.
Cam’s online world is otherwise totally believable. Without doing undue research for this article (ahem), it seems to carry a complete authenticity of the camgirl experience. It has a great moral victory in that we empathize fully with the girls. This is a sex-positive portrayal of women in sex work that just happens to be a horror film. It is certainly not horror by occupation, comfortably in the mold of De Palma-esque identity crisis. Cam hinges on anxiety above fear but finds its grotesque center in its examination of self. We are all participants in the great social experiment of social networks, test subjects for a future that may or may not look back in disdain, at the social good and ills of sharing so much of ourselves so frequently. It hardly matters that Facebook owns your data, when it’s the only way your entire family is connected.
The film moves with a frenetic attention span. This is a document of social culture. It looks pretty, and Director Daniel Goldhaber finds competent framing devices for all the cam shows. Occasionally, it gets lost in the confusion of its high-concept – how has the algorithm modeled every room of her home and why does it create new suicidal actions and tendencies nobody has modeled on the site? It does not have the innate Sci-Fi understanding of a Black Mirror episode and might pale slightly in comparison. It makes up for these oversights by rarely playing the same game, constantly reinforcing itself within the restraints of the fiction and how webcams work. While it is shot by a man, it hardly matters as he works diligently off a woman’s script and tells a progressive feminist story. It may have benefited from a woman’s perspective behind camera in some way, but there is something about its propensity to find the sex and the truth inside it that burns long after the first viewing.
As the shows go on, the girls are reaffirmed by the constant chirp of the tip button. This plays out as a reward system. We understand what is so fulfilling about gamified sex, because every relationship we have has been gamified too. I held out some hope throughout Cam that it was allegorical, that it was about losing the idea of self, and not such literal fare. I’ve chosen to still take it this way. This is a film about a woman who has lost herself completely to the internet and its addictive tendencies. The real Alice does not exist. Only the online version occupies any authentic space. While it holds this interpretation, Cam is a stable thriller of a horror film. Once it leaves this space for literal techno-replacement, the base falls out slightly.
What continually brings me back around is that Cam has a great authenticity. It embraces sexuality and does not allow that to be its big subversion. The women are not totally at fault yet are accountable and competent enough to fight their own cyberwars. Netflix has picked this film up after a successful round of festivals. It certainly stands out amongst the usual work produced by Blumhouse. It does not have a formula, more importantly, it has authenticity. This film about losing ourselves to the internet may also bring us closer to our authentic selves. Is there anything else the best horror can ever show us? If you agree, please hit the like button and let us know you’re out there.