5:00 pm EDT, November 19, 2018

‘Cam’ movie review: A deeply unnerving identity thriller for the digital age

Cam is an unsettling and stylish thriller that turns online identity theft into a Hitchcockian thriller.

The 2010 film The Social Network charted the rise of Facebook, all the way from its humble beginnings in a Harvard dorm room to the day the website hit 1 million members. In the movie, the Sean Parker character (played by Justin Timberlake) says, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!”

At the time of its release, that line felt more like a prophetic attempt rather than an outright fact. Eight years later, however, that prophecy could not be more self-fulfilled.

We don’t just log on to the internet, we inhabit it. We have created individualized spaces online that span farther and deeper than a single website or profile page. The internet allows our identities take on different forms, ones that both complement and conflict with who we really are.

Enter Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s new thriller Cam. This tight ninety-four minute thriller asks us to consider, and fear, the following: If life can be lived online, what happens when that life is stolen from us?

Cam, now streaming on Netflix, operates successfully on a rather simple premise. Alice, a popular camgirl who uses the name Lola online, finds her identity – including her very channel — stolen by a girl that looks exactly like her.

Identity theft is by no means a new story, but that works to the film’s advantage; the familiar narrative structure allows Cam to occupy a new, even taboo content area without alienating viewers. Even if you’ve never seen or visited a cam site, Cam gives you all the necessary information to understand Alice’s world, allowing you to empathize with her struggle and fear for what might happen to her.

The credit for Cam‘s command of this world is owed to screenwriter Isa Mazzei. Mazzei, an former camgirl herself, penned the script for the movie. This fact, in and of itself, makes Cam a rarity.

Not only is it a movie that depicts sex work in a way that works directly against all too prevalent negative stigmas, but it’s also written by a former sex worker. This gives the movie the kind of perspective and context that elevates the story.

Speaking of elevating the story, the stellar lead performance from Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange is the New Black) embodies the best of what Mazzei’s script can be; from the very first frame of the film as we see Alice’s pixelated form broadcasting on her cam channel, Brewer’s performance succeeds in making both Alice and Lola, two separate but related entities, feel remarkably real.

This is a strange thing to say about a performance in a movie that is about the inherent fictionalization of identity and reality that exist online, but that’s also the genius of Brewer’s performance and what makes her so believable in this role.

Moreover, when Alice’s cam channel is stolen, the movie demands Brewer plays a third role – not Alice, not Lola, but a third entity that is both exactly like her but not her at all. Her performance, and the movie as a whole, walks a line between the real and the uncanny that evokes a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Mazzei’s script combined with a stellar lead performance from Madeline Brewer imbue Cam an unsettling realism. There are several moments in the movie, especially early in the film when we’re simply watching Alice perform as Lola, that take on a pseudo-documentary style.

This functions perfectly for the movie, especially since the film begins by putting us in the shoes of Lola’s audience. The opening shot of the movie is a grainy and pixelated shot of Alice as Lola performing for an audience. The scene climaxes in an unexpected and horrifying way, forcing you to reckon with and question what is real and what is a performance. This is the foundation upon which Cam tells Alice’s story and constructs the dramatic tension and thrill.

After this first show, Cam moves strictly to Alice’s perspective in order to allow us, her audience, to fully experience her dizzying descent into digital terror.

At the risk of spoiling the sublime power Cam has to unsettle its audience, I won’t say too much more.

Ultimately, Cam is the kind of low-budget horror that we’ve come to expect from companies like Blumhouse Productions (one of the production companies behind this movie). With a unique-enough premise, a commanding performance, and dutiful direction, Cam will likely satisfy your craving for a low-stakes thrill ride.

While Netflix continues to grow its catalog of original content, Cam is one of the few recent additions that actually feels at home on the platform. While the discussion around whether Netflix should release its films theatrically continues to evolve, Cam is one of the few movies that makes sense to be hosted and viewed online.

There’s a subtle poignancy in watching a movie like Cam at home on your computer; given that world of webcamming exists in thanks to the freedom of the digital arena, it’s natural that a movie like this would also live there.

Make time to watch Cam in the comfort of your own home, preferably with all the lights off. At it’s best, the movie is a voyeuristic tale of stolen identity that preys upon fears unique to the digital age.

Our Score

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