My notes on Cam, which drops on Netflix November 16.
Replete with character name references to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, this through the looking glass cyberthriller about identity theft and online kink morphs slightly awkwardly into a contemporary ghost story. Director Daniel Goldhaber, who also co-wrote with Isa Mazzei, cannily doesn’t entirely explain the supernatural element – the menace could as easily be a rogue artificial intelligence as a malicious spook. Cam focuses mostly on the fractured identity of its protagonist, hardworking Alice (Madeline Brewer) whose cam-girl handle is Lola. She is branching out – with the aid of creepy sweaty fan TinkerBoy (Patch Darragh) – from peek-a-boo bathtimes, self-administered spankings and masturbating to order with objects selected by her followers into elaborate stunts (mock suicides) presumably catering to a different set of customer demands. When I was a kid, our local ITV station ran a segment in which a toy rabbit called Gus Honeybun would perform extremely basic tricks – bunny-hops, turning the lights out – in response to requests sent in from viewers’ families on their birthdays, which was basically an excuse for having the announcer read their names on air. Alice’s online act is bizarrely an adult version of this, with spanks and flashes and mock stabbings delivered at the request of anonymous, token-dispensing users.
We see how hard Alice has to work to keep her rating up, and that she has put her heart and soul into attaining her ostensibly ridiculous stardom. Having just cracked the top fifty on the site, she dreams of displacing the number one, BabyGirl (Imani Hakim), who is unusually remote and doesn’t engage with her devotees. In a peculiarly upsetting sequence, Alice celebrates her bump in the ratings with glitter and cheer only for a rival (Samantha Robinson, of The Love Witch) to draw off her followers by promising to break her ‘non-nude’ rule if Alice ranking falls ten places – which exposes her desperation, and spurs her to ever more dangerous acts. The playpen set and children’s literature references emphasise that this form of porn is stuck in the nursery, and the way Lola’s enthusiastic online fans become even more eager when she starts hurting herself suggests dark impulses out there on the internet and in the culture. Those impulses take a pixel form when Alice finds herself locked out of her own account, which is taken over by a doppelganger Lola who starts breaking Alice’s self-imposed rules. At first, she assumes the new Lola is manipulated footage of old sessions, but she logs on as a user (‘Mr Teapot’) and is able to interact live with the phantom wearing her face.
The sinister double idea is as old as Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ or The Student of Prague, but it’s couched here in up-to-the-moment terms as Alice’s nerves fray while dealing with her site’s unhelpful help line and she has an unsatisfying encounter with bewildered, prurient cops who don’t see her plight and advise her that if she doesn’t want to see bad stuff perhaps she shouldn’t go on the internet. As the virtual Lola becomes more successful, Alice’s life falls apart – her brother (Devin Druid) lets his friends find out what she does for a living, and she is forced to own up to her double (now triple) life to her shocked mother (Melora Walters). And she realises that TinkerBoy has crossed country, hoping to position himself as white knight – though her takeaway from his presence is that he has an idea what’s happening to her, and who might be responsible. A detective thread as Alice sleuths out backstory, cadging some details from bearlike and connected superfan Barney (Michael Dempsey), is well-handled, but feels like a narrative shortcut to the final confrontation, and is not as gripping as the earlier sections in which the heroine’s unconventional but manageable lifestyle is disrupted and coopted by the doppelganger.
Brewer – from the TV series Hemlock Grove and The Handmaid’s Tale – gets a real acting workout in the lead, playing several levels of performance (a nice little moment comes when Alice’s mother admits she’s checked out her act and can appreciate the skill needed to keep it going) then going spectacularly off the rails.
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