When I stumbled across 2018 psychological thriller Cam on Netflix this year, I braced myself for a tacky technological horror film on the perils of the internet, in the same vein as 2014’s Unfriended. What I got instead was arguably one of the most underrated offerings on the platform. The lack of hype surrounding this expertly told tale of identity theft in its most extreme form can only be put down to a lack of awareness.
With dreamy visuals plucked straight from Tumblr’s heyday, Cam is great to look at, but there is much more beneath its soft-neon surface. The film centres on Alice (Madeline Brewer), a cam girl who performs under the alias Lola on the site FreeGirls.Live. Fiercely ambitious, she’s a rising star on the platform, with cutting-edge, boundary-pushing performances that have won her a growing legion of loyal fans. When we first meet her, she is doing a show that concludes with her slitting her throat, after an anonymous patron goads her into suicide for tips. She is smart, skilled and takes her job very seriously – it turns out to be a gory stunt that drives her patrons wild.
Then one day, Alice finds Lola online without her, performing under her username, with her face, in a paddling pool surrounded by blowup dolphins. Initially, she assumes an old show of hers she can’t recall doing is simply being re-run. It’s an explanation more immediately plausible than the reality; a dead-eyed doppelgänger has assumed her online identity, wholly. This Black Mirror-esque nightmare is particularly anxiety-inducing, since Alice draws strict lines between her work life and real life (therefore, her online life and offline life), lines her new nemesis has no problem blurring. Other Lola is a habitual line-stepper, flouting the personal “rules” kept in place in order to maintain distance between not only her loved ones, but her patrons.
This digital face off reminiscent of Face/Off feels even more apt in 2020, with sites such as Only Fans continuing to gain traction and the timely concerns surrounding the dissemination of deepfakes, which are now so commonplace they can be created with apps. It also plays on growing fears concerning companies’ continued aggregation of our data to compile sinisterly accurate digital profiles of ourselves. The drama plays out on a cam site and presents next level catfishing, but the scenario and accompanying paranoia is applicable to any social media platform.
What makes the film so disquieting is how relatable her sense of helplessness is, even in such extraordinary circumstances. Alice takes the often fruitless steps many do when they’ve been victims of hackings: she contacts customer services at the site, who are no help, and then the police, who don’t take her seriously. It’s a brilliant commentary on lawmakers’ inability to keep up with cybercrime, just one of the ways it is in a minority of films about the internet that gets it right. It accurately grasps how much of our sense of self is entangled in the world wide web – nowadays, when we are victims of identity theft online, it’s no longer only money that we stand to lose. Like many, Alice’s online life is her life: her livelihood, her passion, her better self are all bound to this one, easily hacked platform, meaning her whole world comes crashing down when it’s taken over. In real life and online, a popular account being hacked has financial as well as emotional ramifications. Alice’s biggest goal is to hit the top 50 on the site and then eventually secure the No 1 spot. It is akin to influencers’ giddy celebrations at hitting a follower milestone, which once upon a time was frowned upon as silly and is now normalised, given the undeniable ramifications on income stream and status. We are dealing with an entirely new economy that Cam addresses with skill.
Through Alice’s job as a cam girl, nods are made to the freelancer economy, too. Her evil twin doesn’t have to worry about the personal complexities that surround the job, such as the shunning of family and friends or safety at the hands of the men she meets in the industry. She is the embodiment of hustle culture because she isn’t human – she has no need for sleep or breaks or boundaries. With the coronavirus pandemic accelerating the trend of robots replacing humans in the workplace, it feels eerily close to home.
All that said, Cam is at its heart an excellent exploration of personas and projection online, artfully displayed by how well Brewer oscillates between nervy and anxious Alice then the fearless, confident Lola, as well as the robotic, disconcerting Lola 2.0. Though it can be tempting to moralise with films such as these, Cam is made all the more interesting through its moral centrism, in terms of her job and ultimately, the internet. It interrogates life online by displaying it for what it often is: both the best and worst thing in existence.
Cam is available on Netflix worldwide