Cast: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Cam devotes the first thirty odd minutes of its run-time, right up to the major plot point, staking its claim to being a superior contemporaneous drama and character study. The immersive cinematography within the luscious yet forbidding production design, the central performer’s deeply disturbing world building within the confines of her home, the hypnotic music and admirable editing, everything appears to be working perfectly.
But then it gradually begins to go awry. The moment Alice, aka Lola in the cam girl world, discovers that an imposter has replaced her on her popular online account, Cam begins plummeting towards mediocrity. It transforms into a risible mystery-thriller eventually let down by a lack of focus and belief in its central character’s story.
Madeline Brewer plays Lola, an ambitious cam girl on a popular website. Patrons, almost all of them male, pay good money to watch her giggle and perform her way through imaginative acts. The more viewers she has, the higher her ranking. Lola wants to break into the top 50 at any cost and eventually dethrone Babygirl from her top position. Predictably, Lola, or Alice in the offline world, lives a double life. She receives gifts and tips from her patrons but tries to divorce her real life from her online avatar. Her family doesn’t know about her line of work and she is thinking of a proper time to tell them. Slowly, the lines between the two worlds begin to blur. One of her patrons, Tinker, starts stalking her, and seems to have moved into her town. And then one day, Alice finds herself locked out of her cam account and replaced by someone who looks exactly like her.
As long as Cam maintains a semblance of reality, it works gloriously. The appearance of Lola’s doppelganger, albeit a shocker of a revelation, demands unreasonable acts of narrative pyrotechnics from the writers as justification. Most cruelly, it distracts from Brewer’s riveting central performance in a character that possesses all the ammunition necessary to carry a film on its own. Right before it plummets into the thriller category, the film is a horrifyingly claustrophobic trip through a delusional yet independent mind.
It is thrilling and disturbing to witness an intelligent and beautiful young woman falling prey to the prospect of fast money. Here is an exaggerated version of our online selves, often taken to the extreme. The lure of a fame away from fame is heightened by the gold crusted television set and the luscious drapes in her room, a world wrapped in the glitter and haze of seemingly false promise, every inch of which the camera navigates with dizzying certainty. Lola yelps and cries as she inches her way up the ladder of cam girl fame. We are besotted by her act, too involved to look away, gently reminding ourselves that, unlike the patrons, we would never indulge in the same. But Alice is slowly slipping down the rabbit hole. And perhaps by bearing witness we can’t help but do the same.
Cam plays with the audience exceptionally well in its first half hour. But then the rot sets in. Under-cooked characters start drifting in and out of the narrative. Reason goes for a toss. The film loses its grip on reality while we lose ours on Lola. Much will be made of the film’s refusal to offer concrete answers to Lola’s predicament. Frankly, by the time the reason behind the appearance of the doppelganger is revealed, you don’t care anymore. We have crawled out of the rabbit hole and Lola’s character has been confused and mystified so much that we don’t care to look back as we leave.
In essence, it is a classic case of the character being needlessly driven here and there by the push and pull of the narrative simply to please the audience. It is surprising that the filmmakers lost faith in the strength of their character’s many dimensions. Their genuflection to what they perceive as genre needs comes across as an act of artistic cowardice. More significantly, it is a disservice to the audience which is gripped by the horror of witnessing a promising young person led astray by the lure of the modern age. Where director Daniel Goldhaber could have chosen to challenge our perception of Lola’s trade—something she undertakes with confidence and faith—he detours into familiar territory to satisfy moral and business imperatives.
Cam, therefore, ends up as a grave disappointment. Its promise could have yielded a truly memorable film had the filmmakers invested more faith in their central character. It could have been a film of the times that generations to come would have looked back upon and pondered. Instead, it turns into a mediocre thriller that shamelessly turns the camera away from the horror of a woman’s real predicament, in effect belying its primary purpose.