Notable Cast: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Samantha Robinson, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Flora Diaz, Quei Tann
With all of the hype going into the film, one almost expected Cam – at least when it comes to its subject matter surrounding the culture and environment of cam girls – to be a more controversial. The fact that it ended up debuting on Netflix instead of a theatrical run via Blumhouse is a big indicator that perhaps Cam would be a more abrasive kind of cinematic experience and one that a more general audience would not be as open to appreciating. However, that is not necessarily the case with this film. For the most part, it does not intend to make huge bold statements in almost any direction about its content, but presents itself as a character study concerning the complexities of a variety of social issues concerning identity and the relationship between the physical and the digital. In these regards, Cam is massively successful and punctuates its sense of unease and spiraling collapse of reality with thoughtful vigor. It may not appease the average horror film fanatic with its Twilight Zone inspired concept, but for this reviewer it was a massive surprise.
On the surface, Cam tells the story of a young woman searching for the person (or thing?) that is pretending to be her and has taken control of her online identity, which also happens to be her method of income as a cam girl. Now the film does feature some great depth underneath this rather mundane surface narrative, which will be addressed in a second, but the key for the film to work is that it has to find a way to tell its narrative without blowing off into artsy realms where it’s going to lose its footing. This is where having the setting of the world of cam girls is a fascinating choice. It’s well documented in recent articles and interviews that the writer of the film worked as a cam girl previously and this becomes obvious as the film digs into the world it’s set in. For someone like me, this is a foreign landscape (and concept, really) and the manner that Cam navigates it by showing all of its sides, the glamour, the fame of one’s caricature, the unease, and even the more dangerous elements beyond the fringe horror, is as fascinating as the character study that drives home the horror elements. If anything, even without the more vague and strange doppelganger angles, Cam would have worked as a fantastic piece of dramatic cinema. There never seems to be an attempt at showing this world in either a fully positive or negative light, but it aims to show how complex it can be for the lead character. It’s a bold, thoughtful, and strong choice in the end.
Granted, as mentioned, the world of cam girls is just the setting for the film and it’s the basic foundations for the plot and narrative. Where Cam really shines is how it uses that setting to dig into the themes of identity through a variety of lenses. First and foremost, the film is a character study. It’s anchored by Brewer, who essentially must play three roles. She plays Alice, the next-door girl who is looking to be successful in her job and must balance work, family, and her own health, but she also plays Lola, Alice’s Cam girl identity who is, generally speaking, a different persona. Of course, she must also play Lola 2, the Lola doppleganger that seeming starts to take over her professional life and throws Alice into a swirling identity crisis. Doppleganger films are not new to the genre. There have been plenty of them, actually. What makes Cam a bit different is that, although it certainly plays things out as a psychological thriller as she attempts to track down this other Lola, other characters know there is a separate woman out there claiming to be their co-worker or friend, but they don’t seem to care. It is stated fairly early that this is not all in her head. This is a unique trait to Cam that really works on a variety of sociological levels as much as a psychological one and the vague reasonings that eventually come to light in her investigation are less about giving reasons and more about the character losing control and then regaining it. Sure, the horror elements are lighter in genre, but depth and dramatic work to the character study makes the supernatural slant work even when there isn’t a lot of real reasons given by the end.
Of course, concept and narrative are only parts for a film to be successful and Cam executes them brilliantly. The direction and design of the film embraces this “real world vs digital world” aesthetic (the design of her cam girl room for example is given an almost dream like glow) pays off in dividends as the film progresses. The performances from all of the cast, most certainly Brewer in the lead role who must anchor all of the concepts in her performance, are impressively nuanced and effective. Cam is a film that, although the idea is lofty, has the execution to make it all feel as real as it needs to be even to someone that is completely foreign to this world.
Although some horror fans may find themselves disappointed in the lack of visceral horror that is on display, Cam does not disappoint in its thoughtful and impressively layered concept and execution. Brewer delivers a heartfelt and complex performance, the tone is fantastically executed, and the themes and depth of the messages are impactful, but vague enough to be wildly open to interpretation. While the film is not nearly as abrasive as expected, Cam delivers on its promises and does it with style, contemplation, and pizzazz. It’s easily one of the best of the year in genre cinema.