Fantastic Fest Review: CAM Is A Parasocial Horror Show

The persona of internet celebrity takes on a life of its own.

Being an internet personality is horrifying. I won't claim to be a well-known quantity myself, but as anyone who works in online content creation can attest, even with a small number of Twitter followers you are in a constant struggle to present a marketable, branded version of yourself that can at times feel completely foreign from who you are IRL. This is of course true of social media in general, as each of us picks and chooses what facets of ourselves to show to the world, but it's a different game to show ourselves off for our livelihoods, sometimes at the risk of emotional or physical harm from those who take in our work. There's probably no group that understands this more than online sex workers, especially pornographic camgirls, whose whole profession is based around providing the illusion of intimacy for a largely anonymous audience. Cam takes those anxieties and runs with them full tilt, crafting a tale that is perhaps just as disturbing for its allegorical implications as for anything that happens on-screen.

Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a camgirl operating under the alias Lola. She enjoys her work, has great rapport with the chatroom occupied by regulars recognizable only by their username, and has steady aspirations to climb the rankings against the other top performers on her site. She courts the favor of a user (Michael Dempsey) who gets off on manipulating the standing of the competitors, deals with the romantic odes of a stalking obsessor (Patch Darragh), and engages in the toxic one-upping competition of other camgirls. All this is done without the knowledge of her mother (Melora Walters), who believes Alice is working in some sort of tech-sector position. However, Alice's carefully manufactured life starts to unravel as she becomes mysteriously locked out of her camgirl account, yet new videos continue to stream, featuring a doppelgänger Lola. As this new Lola continues to rise in the ranks by pushing the boundaries the self-exposure Alice was comfortable with doing for the sake of her show, the boundary between Alice's personal and professional lives begins to break down, threatening to break her in the process.

It is absolutely refreshing to see a film frame sex work as neither scandalous nor fetishized. This has a lot to do with writer Isa Mazzei being a former camgirl herself, so the tone of the film is reflective of the apparently radical idea that the women behind camgirl personas are, in fact, real women, complete with lives, families, and a desire to succeed at their chosen profession. But Cam is also completely unafraid to break down the guilt inherent in sex work when operating in a society that aims to shame sex workers at every opportunity even as it consumes what they produce. Abusive male figures are a fact of Alice's clientele, and as those figures become prominent suspects in her search for the truth of her hacked account, the troubled dynamic between creator and fan gets pushed to the limit. Nowhere is this disturbed dynamic more evident than in a scene that serves as the ultimate rebuttal to the question "Why doesn't she just call the police?"

And through that dynamic we see the persistent struggle of online content creation made manifest. The public persona of doppelgänger Lola threatens to wipe out the personal comfort, autonomy, privacy, and safety of the private Alice, feeding into a culture of self-destruction for the express purpose of success through shallow performative relationships. Doppelgänger Lola may be the result of whoever took control of Alice's account, but she is the embodiment of what it takes to be an ultimate success in her field: the death of the private self for the sake of the public persona. This is a problem unique to camgirls only by degrees, but Cam isn't a condemnation of online self-salesmanship. Rather, Cam is an allegorical deconstruction of what it takes to be a public performer and what can happen should the personal boundaries meant to protect the performer start to break down.

This is a powerful debut feature from director Daniel Goldhaber, psychologically insightful and remarkably tense. Madeline Brewer does an incredible job pulling double duty as her Alice and Lola personalities, sometimes having to shift between the two on the fly, or hiding how she really feels from her fictional cam audience while simultaneously demonstrating those hidden feelings for the film's audience. Mazzei's writing is tight, if perhaps slightly underestimating of her audience's knowledge of what a camgirl is, and the story this cast and crew developed culminates in a masterful climax of bone-crunching intensity. Don't sleep on Cam. It will give you a whole new appreciation for the people on the other side of your screen.