★★ / ★★★★
The psychological horror “Cam,” written by Isa Mazzei and inspired by her own experiences as a cam-girl, offers a handful of interesting ideas: being a live sex worker on the internet, voyeurism, personal versus private lives, how we measure our value based on social media approval, and how the next sensation is waiting just around the corner. It offers a curious premise, a watchable lead performance, and is suspenseful at times. However, precisely because it offers a wealth of ideas, it is expected that these—at least some of them—will be explored in meaningful or thoughtful ways. On this level, the picture does not deliver. Its throwaway ending is especially disappointing.
Madeline Brewer plays Alice, a woman who makes a living named “Lola” as a cam-girl on FreeGirls.Live. Right from its opening scene we are given a chance to appreciate Alice’s line of work. The chat may be full of men (and women) who are hungry to see Lola take off her clothes, tease, and engage in a range of sexual activities—accompanied by donations—but the picture always cuts to Alice hamming it up for her viewers in her dark and lonely room. I enjoyed how when Lola is on screen, there is an untouchable glamour to her. We understand why she has a number of loyal fans: she engages their fantasy using her eyes. Yet when we look at Alice away from the screen, she feels like ordinary young woman underneath all the heavy makeup. This duality drew me into the film almost immediately, way before the central conflict is revealed.
The premise revolves around Alice’s discovery that a woman who looks exactly like her (also played by Brewer) has taken over her channel. In a single swoop, Alice has lost her fans, money, and reputation. We get the expected harried phone call to the website in question, but after her problem goes unsolved by tech support, the film reaches a plateau. Instead, we shift to Alice’s home life, specifically her mother (Melora Walters) and brother (Devin Druid) discovering the nature of her work. It wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if this subplot actually had a point or offered emotional rewards during the last act. Instead, we never see Alice’s family come to terms with her occupation in a genuine or satisfying way.
Clever and penetrating investigatory sequences should have been front and center from the moment Alice discovers that someone else is pretending to be her. It is paramount that we experience her increasing desperation all the way to the finish line. The family drama hinders this work from becoming great. While we observe Alice perform research and take big steps to reclaim her identity eventually, it comes across as though this is done only because the story must soon be wrapped up. It lacks flow. I wanted to see Alice’s resourcefulness, her creativity, her level of self-reliance when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This story could have been told in one hour. It is not the most efficient thriller.
More specific information about how the double is made and how it works might have elevated the film. The screenplay glosses over this idea as if it is afraid to touch the realm of science-fiction. But the problem is, this detail is precisely what viewers will be most curious about. Who cares if the explanation is bizarre or out of left field as long as genuine effort is made to break down every step to the point where we can buy into the phenomenon? For a movie about an online sex worker, I was repelled a bit by its unwillingness to take risks that matter.