Lewis Carroll meets David Lynch in debutant director Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, a psycho-thriller about a cyber-age Alice who falls through a very modern kind of looking glass. Drawing on her experience as a webcam performer in the online sex industry, screenwriter Isa Mazzei conjures up an eerie fairy tale about identity theft and digital doppelgangers. The plot plays like an episode of the techno-Gothic show Black Mirror at times, but it draws on primal fears reaching back through centuries of folklore, psychology and popular culture, from Dostoevsky to Freud to Hitchcock.
World premiered in July at the Montreal genre fest Fantasia, where it won prizes for best screenplay and first feature, Cam is a suspenseful mind-bender with plenty of timely feminist subtext. It takes viewers down some unexpected rabbit holes and commendably avoids pandering to male-gaze sex-thriller tropes, even if it ultimately fails to deliver on its grippingly weird early promise. Following its U.K. premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last month, Goldhaber’s uncanny yarn is headed for a Netflix launch Nov. 16.
A fresh and gripping tale of double trouble.
Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale) gives a solid, nuanced leade performance as Alice, an ambitious twentysomething who makes a handsome but clandestine living by performing softcore sex acts via a private live-streaming channel under the alias “Lola.” Obsessed with boosting her lowly viewer ratings, Alice takes a gamble on increasingly macabre stunts, including a fake throat-slashing suicide. This earns her more fans, but not always the healthy kind. When she blocks creepy admirers, they instantly reappear under new account names. “You look beautiful,” one tells her, “even covered in blood.”
In a bid to challenge her most successful live-streaming rival, played with deliciously vampy hauteur by Samantha Robinson (The Love Witch), Alice breaks her self-imposed rules about always performing solo and never going fully naked. A surreal, unsettling, almost Cronenbergian episode involving a monstrous super-vibrator seems to push Alice way beyond her comfort zone and into nightmarish new terrain.
The next day, a dazed Alice is alarmed to discover she has been locked out of her live-stream account by a malicious look-alike Lola, who has hijacked her online identity and is performing much more risky, exhibitionist sex acts onscreen. In the process, this mysterious body-snatching avatar also callously exposes Alice’s secret profession to friends and family, causing humiliation for her mother (Melora Walters) and confusion among her regular online fans.
When the live-streaming company proves suspiciously unhelpful, and the police plain dismissive, Alice is forced to tackle her bizarre online twin single-handedly. But is the fake Lola a real rival with a genius for impersonation? A cruel gaslighting trick hatched by obsessive stalker-fans like Tinker (Patch Darragh) and Barney (Michael Dempsey)? A supernatural ghost in the machine? A rogue algorithm that has achieved sentience? Or even a splintering of Alice’s personality in the tradition of Fight Club?
Mazzei’s screenplay hints all all these intriguing tangents but never quite settles on a satisfactory explanation. Instead, it pitches the two Lolas together for a digital death match in a visually striking hall of mirrors, which works more on the level of allegorical fairy tale than flesh-and-blood reality. In the process, Cam sacrifices some of its suspenseful momentum for an open-ended, fablelike resolution that will leave some viewers dissatisfied.
Making resourceful use of its obviously modest budget, Cam boasts some high-caliber technical touches, particularly Daniel Garber’s nervy, propulsive editing and Emma Rose Mead’s minutely detailed production design. Alice’s bedroom studio, with its fluffy pink Barbie-doll palette, astutely captures the queasy infantilizing subtext behind so much pornographic fantasy. But ultimately, Goldhaber’s cautionary cyberfable this is not a story about commodified sex. It draws its disturbing power from a more universal 21st century phobia: our sheer existential dread of being locked out of the virtual world behind the looking glass.
Venue: London Film Festival
Production companies: Blumhouse, Gunpowder & Sky, Divide/Conquer
Cast: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Flora Diaz, Samantha Robinson, Jessica Parker Kennedy
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Screenwriter: Isa Mazzei
Producers: Isabelle Link-Levy, Adam Hendricks, John Lang, Greg Gilreath
Cinematographer: Katelin Arizmendi
Editor: Daniel Garber
Production designer: Emma Rose Mead
Music: Gavin Brivik