How many movies delve into the world of sex work? A lot, right? Sex workers are everywhere in cinema, with actors playing prostitutes or strippers or pornstars in everything from The Big Lebowski to The Wrestler to Total Recall. So common are Hollywood’s depictions of sex work that most people’s idea of the industry is likely based entirely on what they see in movies.
Cam, directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, is the real deal. It’s a horror-thriller about sex work from the perspective of a sex worker, exploring all the joys, terrors, and bizarre psychological phenomena of the modern, Internet-driven sex industry. And even putting aside that it’s Goldhaber and Mazzei’s first feature, it’s phenomenal.
Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid's Tale) plays Alice, a camgirl webcasting to eager viewers under the name “Lola.” She's ranked in the low fifties amongst the girls on the service she uses, striving to attract more viewers and payments so she can move up the ladder. Her relationship with her viewers is a commodified, transactional one; with her fellow camgirls, a blend of friendship and rivalry. Her chosen cam site takes a 50% cut of her income, but otherwise the shows and entrepreneurship are hers. For a fee, she does private video chats. For a greater fee, she meets up with guys in person. But her greatest ambition is to reach CamGirlsFree's hallowed Top 10.
Immediately, Cam's depiction of the camgirl life smacks of an authenticity absent from many films. Mazzei’s script radiates detail, from Alice/Lola’s online interactions to her home life to her place within the industry. Dialogue is peppered with jargon we're simply expected to keep up with; the visitors on Lola's fictional website behave as you'd expect them to; and through it all, Brewer displays a masterful control of both Alice's true personality and her online persona.
The duality between real-life Alice and camgirl creation Lola is central to the film's themes - and to an ever-deepening spiral of psychological horror. Opening with a shocking fake on-cam suicide, Cam sees Lola desperate to pull on-camera stunts that draw viewers in. But her desperation doubles when she logs on one day to see her account already online and streaming - with a perfect doppelganger in front of the camera.
What follows from there is a Lynchian nightmare of identity theft and fractured personae, speaking uniquely to the camgirl world and broadly to the world of social media. In navigating this nightmare, Alice must deal with her family discovering her secret profession, public scorn, and the dismissive attitudes of law enforcement, but it’s the internal struggle that’s most compelling. As the drama thickens, and this otherworldly second Lola begins to take over Alice’s life, the film comments on the line between lives online and real - and how that line becomes all too easily blurred. It’s a story for the social media age, and yet timeless. We’ve always presented ourselves differently to different groups - this just takes the practice to a disturbing extreme.
Cam’s terrifying climax and darkly "happy" ending leave a lot of loose ends hanging, but paint a picture of an existential dilemma inherent in both sex work and ordinary social media. How much do we separate ourselves from our online personas? At what point does the one identity subsume the other? Is putting on a show online a kind of addictive cycle, driven by engagement from either a paying audience or actual friends? Do we do things for ourselves, or for the likes or retweets? And given the voyeuristic nature of social media’s window into people’s lives, how different is broadcasting nude shows, really? These questions could have been asked in many different contexts, but Cam’s camgirl setting is perfect. So distinctive and unreal is that type of performance, so thirsty the audience, that it makes for drama far more compelling than posting selfies on Instagram.
But it’s all the same shit, on a different site.