The nature of identity is a tricky thing. How do we begin to quantify what makes us who we are? For a start, we’re all physical, material beings, with biological drives and senses through which we process information. We’re also, at least in part, a construct informed and shaped by our circumstances and experiences as we stumble through life, attempting to make sense of the world we live in. And yet, our identities can’t be solely defined by the material, either; after all, if we suddenly stop perceiving, we’d still be fully aware that we’re us. Add technology to the equation, and it gets even more complex. When our identities intersect with technology, we’re suddenly not just people, we’re also a series of zeroes and ones in databases of personal information over which we have little control. On the internet, we abstract ourselves further, even as notions of identity become increasingly central to our politics and lives. With the click of a mouse, the realization and eradication of the self become equally possible and increasingly inevitable.
The friction inherent in this dilemma serves as the primary driving force behind Cam, which screened last week at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, mining horror from questions of identity in the internet age. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, with a screenplay by Isa Mazzei, Cam tracks the journey of ambitious cam girl Alice, whose pseudonymous existence as “Lola” performing in real-time erotic webcasts provides a nice financial cushion but diminishing creative returns. Looking to shake things up, and eager to earn token tips to break Top 50 on her hosting site of choice, Alice pushes her performances to the sensationalist limit, faking grizzly suicides with some makeup effects know-how. It works, at least at first, but before she can make her next big move, something odd happens: she wakes up one morning to find she’s been locked out of her account. Except her live stream is active. And she’s there, on screen, talking to her regulars in the chat, business as usual. But it’s not her at all.
Cam vividly captures the abject horror in how much of our lives is entangled online by presenting the most terrifyingly literal scenario of identity theft imaginable. To stare at a screen and see someone who, by all accounts, looks, sounds and behaves exactly like you, when you know they aren’t — can’t possibly be — you at all, is to become depersonalized in the deepest, most wounding sense, losing control of not only your image, but your very self. When personal information gets stolen, it’s a jarring invasion and a major hassle, but one’s physical identity isn’t displaced. Alice’s nightmare is an altogether more sinister and disorienting violation, which makes for great horror fodder.
Concept can only take things so far, though, so it’s a good thing Cam has more to offer beyond the horror inherent to its central conceit. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi maintains an uneasy intimacy with her lens, tracking Alice’s descent into internet doppelganger hell through many medium and close-up shots, creating an experience both personal and deeply claustrophobic. This is compounded by an unrelenting, oppressive air of dread which looms throughout, the unnerving result of a confluence of crucial elements: shrewd utilization of room tone, immersive integration of technology, an effective score and finally, the inherent horror of the situation unfolding.
At the center of it all is the formidable, sure to be star-making performance of Madeline Brewer, who serves as the film’s beating heart. Brewer inhabits Alice with a confidence and natural ease, turning what’s on the page into a fully fleshed out, recognizable person. It’s, at times, a very demanding role; she’s essentially playing two characters, and as Alice compartmentalizes her interactions and aspects of her life into separate pockets — family sees one side of her, her peers another, clients yet another — with very different ways of interacting and presenting with each, Brewer has her work cut out for her, but she capably meets the task, making subtle choices in the physicality and tone of her performance that make each interaction ring true. The way Alice navigates the different relationships and commitments in her life, being different things to different people, is one of several aspects of the film that really benefits from having the insights of a writer who knows what it’s like to work within the sex industry on a personal level, and how that work might have a broader impact on the mundane, day-to-day living of those in the trade.
Cam seems to have a lot on its mind, and for the most part, it weaves these various threads of commentary into the fabric of the narrative remarkably well; it all works in service of the mounting sense of unease, and with the possible exception of a major third-act revelation (which relies as much on subjective interpretation as it does on firm textual developments within the film), does not ever feel too obvious or heavy-handed. One underlying theme throughout is the nature of male entitlement and the delicate balancing act that comes with the territory of working in the sex industry; placating egos and feigning attention just enough to get that money, while remaining constantly hyper-vigilant of your every move and exchange. It doesn’t take long for a couple of Alice’s regulars to cross the line, with one instance escalating into one of the film’s most tense moments, and it’s clear this is just part of life for her.
It then becomes easier to understand why she might be compelled to enact scenes of gruesome self-harm in her webstreams; in a way, Alice’s extreme stunts to garner tips provide a twisted sort of tension relief, and this applies to the audience as well. Through misdirection, it all appears real, until, mercifully, it doesn’t. It’s simple tension and release. For certain internet slummers, however, it might also prompt some uncomfortable questions about the nature of certain notorious gore and shock sites and their relative appeal. Further, as Alice’s desperate struggle against her strange impostor unfolds, it’s easy to make connections to the recent controversy surrounding “deepfakes,” an AI-based image-blending technique (think very convincing face-swap videos) which rippled through the web-based porn community via fake celebrity sex tapes before reaching the wider world, raising serious ethical concerns. One of the major points of conflict in Cam is Alice’s inability to exert control over her situation because of what appears to be fact; how can she be locked out of her account, a suspicious tech support specialist inquires, when he can see her live on her cam stream?
Cam serves as a reminder that when any aspect of our self is put online, it can eventually be weaponized against us, often in ways we never could have anticipated. It follows in the great horror tradition of using scary scenarios to explore deeper issues that affect us and the society we live in, and for fans of psychological horror in particular, it offers plenty of food for thought.
Cam has been acquired by Netflix. A web premiere date is TBA.