Tuesday, 23 October 2018
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber
and co-written with Isa Mazzei
Screened at the London Film Festival
Saturday 20th October 2018.
Cam was the third and final of my London Film Festival screenings this year and it was a pretty positive one. Before the film started, director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei (a former sex cam worker) explained that, although the movie had played in a festival before, this was the first time the final, polished cut of the movie had been exhibited... which kinda half explains why I couldn’t find a trailer for this anywhere online when I sat down to book my ticket for this one.
I was surprised to see the Blumhouse logo at the front of this but it transpires, as the movie progresses, that this is not technically a thriller but a horror movie. Which I’m fine with. I was less fine with the Netflix logo which came up at the front but... yeah... don’t get me started on Netflix.
The movie tells the story of a week or so in the life of Alice, played with a lot of energy and confidence by Madeline Brewer. Alice is a sex worker who performs for customers as part of a specific cam site similar to virtual spaces like LiveJasmin and Chaturbate under the name Lola... I guess men cluster to her like moths around a flame, assuming that’s the correct reference for her performance name. That being said, the film is not really pitched as an erotic movie... that is just the milieu in which Mazzei and Goldhaber chose to set their story, which mainly centres around the topic of identity theft.
That being said, the big main positive of the film is that it doesn’t stigmatise sex work as being anything more negative than any other profession (finally, at last) and doesn’t try to judge anyone for anything, at least not the sex worker characters in the film. What it does show, however, is the terrible prejudice against people who choose to work in this industry... not just from family and friends but also from the police when they are asked to help out in the film. I know from the Q&A session at the end of the screening that two of the lines in the film, both assigned to the police in a scene where Alice turns to them for assistance, are taken directly from Isa Mazzei’s own experiences of intolerance and dismissive attitudes... one specifically with the police and one from a number of people in Hollywood.
The film takes a while to get to the basic plot set up as it shows the lives of the cam girls and their obsessions... Alice’s obsession being to get to the top of the league in views (she starts the film outside of the top 50). Also, the way the movie is shot with a lot edits to different things going on in an environment as a kind of information overload stops the narrative dragging at certain points. This approach is combined with some nicely designed sets such as Alice’s ‘Pink Room’ which the director said was their homage to David Lynch’s Red Room in Twin Peaks, courtesy of production designer Emma Rose Mead and they really help lift the movie into something which can match the level of the writing and deliver it up as a rich audio/visual experience.
Then, once we are familiar with all of the little quirks of Alice/Lola’s trade, we get the real plot set up. Her account gets hijacked and she is locked out. However, she is still somehow also performing every night on the site... it’s just not Alice but, an exact facsimile of Alice carrying on. However, it’s not a ‘deepfake’ performance (the writer and director said that the movie was already shot when all the ‘deepfake’ controversy started up last year) and it’s not, as Alice finds when she starts to investigate, old archive footage of her previous performances. In fact, when she sock puppets up an account to interact with the new Lola, she finds that Lola is responding to her and everybody else just fine. Something else is going on... but what?
Well I’m not saying but there is certainly more than meets the eye here and, just like a lot of post-Romero zombie movies, the nice thing about the movie is that it never really explains the main antagonistic presence lurking in the shadows of cyberspace... but it does show our heroine overcoming her difficulties and taking the fight for her online identity to a point where she can try and beat it at its own game. Circumstances become especially muddy when she realises that some of the girls performing live in their top placed cam shows actually died a while ago in real life. And as the danger signals start to kick in on the character, we see her energy levels and paranoia worsening as she reacts to the crisis.
As her investigation to get her life back continues under difficult circumstances, she hits the same kind of walls that all of us seem to hit when having trouble with our ‘online’ lives. Nobody really understands all the ins and outs of their virtual footprints and Goldhaber and Mazzei explained that it was their intention to play with the fact that people who are all building an online construct such as thier Twitter or Facebook personae which is unleashed into the world, are often quite deliberately accepting of all the murky things that companies are doing to us in our cyberlife. We tend to ignore what we don’t feel we can change and I know I’m always a bit reluctant to click ‘accept’ on the terms and conditions of pretty much every online sign up that I come across but, like the main protagonist in this film, I keep on doing it because the only other option is to not be able to access the specific tool I need. There are several times in the movie where Alice hits a brick wall with online support and I can relate to this all the number of times I’ve tried to actually contact, in the flesh, some of the sites I use on a daily basis. There’s no real support anymore in the online world, just the pretence that there’s something there to help you when things go wrong and I find that this is something which is getting worse year by year.
The performances in Cam are all pretty good here too. Madeline Brewer is absolutely phenomenal here in a part that, I found out from the Q & A, agents were kinda hiding from their clients because they didn’t want them associated with this role and she’s ably supported by some pretty good actors and actresses, including Patch Darragh and Michael Dempsey as two of her online clients and Melora Waters as her mother.
In terms of it being a horror movie rather than a thriller... well it has the horror element in there for sure. The writer and director stated after that they were initially thinking of making a documentary about cam girls but then instead decided to show the positivity surrounding the industry by using genre cinema instead. This is something which I’ve said before on here that the low budget horror genre can do really well... bring about an attitude change by sneaking in ideas and characters which go against conventional expectations in a format which isn’t as closely monitored as a big budget horror movie (such as when the three Insidious sequels really took the older 'medium' character from the first movie and ran with her as a mature action hero in the subsequent films).
It’s a good idea and it works well here... they do a terrific job... but I would personally be careful with the marketing on this movie. It doesn’t deliver any of the gut punch scare tactics that most modern horror films use as their standard modus operandi and it also doesn’t do the traditional sense of lurking dread that the more successful horror movies do. The real horror of this film lies in the way online identity can be twisted and used against a person, which is a factor in the movie that haunts you later, once you’ve had time to process it... but it’s probably not going to deliver to audiences expecting the usual kind of genre movies put out by Blumhouse. Possibly it would be better to market this as a thriller rather than a horror and let the slow slide into realisation that there’s more going on than meets the eye sink in as an audience watches.
All in all though... Cam is a really nice little movie which dares to portray sex workers as what they are rather than what some bizarre section of the general public still prefers to see them as and it deserves to be a success. I hope this one gets a proper cinema release worldwide but I’m not sure if that will happen if Netflix have put up the money. Worth taking a look at if you get the chance, though, because it’s got things to say and it’s offered up here in a sweetened pill which might actually do some good if audiences choose to swallow the offered medication. A nice film to end this year’s London Film Festival experience for me too... I managed to see three good ones.