Synopsis: Alice is a quasi-successful camgirl (under the alias of Lola) whose online identity is stolen by a mysterious antagonist that happens to look, sound, and behave exactly like her.
1. How do we gauge authenticity in a film? It’s a tricky task, not made easier by the fact that the value of authenticity in the overall quality of a film is questionable. Too much focus on ‘authenticity’ and ‘realism’ can result in the worst type of nitpicky critiques plaguing Youtube, or at the very least, draw attention away from the true building blocks of narrative film – characterisation, themes, editing, etc. Besides, there are numerous good reasons to avoid this kind of critique. Sometimes the situation does not call for it – any attempt to dissect the authenticity of, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be pure pedantry. Sometimes authenticity is a necessary sacrifice for the sake of stylisation (nobody speaks like Tarantino’s or the Coens’ characters) or for dramatic structure (as a teacher, any attempt to realistically depict education would be tremendously dull). But there are also times when the authenticity of a film, be it in the specificity of its point-of-view, attention to detail, or even just the sense that the filmmakers have some experience of what they are talking about, can elevate a movie to new levels.
CAM is one of those movies.
2. Jointly credited to screenwriter Isa Mazzei (herself a former camgirl) and director Daniel Goldhaber (himself a former director of porn), Cam rings with authenticity in every frame. Much of the best parts of CAM come from the lived-in level of detail of Alice/Lola’s life as a camgirl – competing with other camgirls to rise in the ranks and snare the biggest tippers, documenting, scheduling and brainstorming shows, facing the judgment of the police or the mortifying spectacle of coming out to one’s family as a sex worker – these are all portrayed as a part of a camgirl’s life. Mazzei and Goldhaber are extremely adept at doling out the behind-the-scenes details of a camgirl’s life without having to resort to explicit ‘let-me-explain-what-I-do’ exposition. These scenes are an exemplar of the old writing maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, and both writer and director are superb in using fine points to subtly shade the edges of their story. My personal favourite – the contrast of the set design between Lola’s impeccably decorated camming studio and Alice’s living space, which somehow manages to be both bare-bones and a total mess. A lovely, subtle way of conveying to the viewer of the difference between Alice/Lola’s two personalities and their respective priority in our protagonist’s life.*
3. Said protagonist is played by Madeline Brewer in one of the most impressive performances of the year. The bar is set ridiculously high on this one – Brewer not only has to play the dual roles of Alice and Lola, but also Alice pretending to be Lola, fake-Lola, and so on. While the hook of the film relies on its buzzy premise (it’s about porn!), the substance of the film centres around questions of identity and performance, which Brewer handles in spades. As Alice, Brewer slouches, bites her nails and mumbles her lines while as Lola, she chirps and smiles while spanking herself. Yet Brewer and Mazzei/Goldhaber always make clear that the two personas cannot be separated, and that our protagonist is a composite of both to some extent. Helping in this regard are Brewer’s wonderfully expressive eyes, which are deployed to the hilt in CAM to allow the viewer to see peeks of Alice beneath the Lola-persona and vice versa.
4. CAM is also that rare work of media that presents sex work in a positive light and refuses to demonise it. Even the current zenith of media about sex work, HBO’s The Deuce, occasionally falls into the trap of puritan scolding even as it presents its sex workers as multi-faceted and three-dimensional individuals. CAM, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to judge** the sex trade, and even posits that a happy ending for Alice would be one where she could continue camming without it having to affect her IRL self. Representing a sex worker with agency and who takes pride in (and likes) her work is a breath of fresh air and a necessary corrective to the repetitive numbing portrayals of sex workers in the media as either helpless victims or the butt of jokes.
5. CAM is by no means a perfect movie, and its biggest flaw happens to be a major one – its plot. While Mazzei’s screenplay is admirably clear about what it is trying to say and how it wants to convey it, the nuts and bolts plotting of the film do fall flat at points. The best analogy I can use would be to think of CAM as an essay with a well-expressed and cogent argument, but one too many spelling and grammar errors. The most obvious issue would be the total lack of in-universe explanation for fake-Lola. Sure, it’s obvious what she is supposed to stand for (loss of control of one’s internet persona, the disjoint between one’s IRL and URL identities, the dehumanisation of sex workers, etc etc), but the film never quite makes it clear who or what she is and why she even exists in the first place. CAM feints at some grand conspiracy about killing off popular camgirls and replacing them with whatever fake-Lola is, but it never amounts to anything, and this conspiracy plot is onscreen for the worst possible amount of time – long enough to be more than mere world-building but not long enough to feed into the main plot in a satisfactory way. Few films ever need to be longer, but CAM certainly falls into this category – about ten extra minutes of screentime would have helped to unspool the plot threads into a more satisfactory resolution.
6. This aside, CAM is an excellent debut film for Mazzei/Goldhaber and lead feature performance for Brewer. As earlier mentioned, authenticity and the authority of lived experience go a very long way in covering up some of the film’s plotting flaws, and besides, a film that is clear-eyed about the conveyance of its message and muddled about its step-by-step plotting is far preferable to one that is the other way round. Stylishly written and directed (I didn’t even get into how well lit and shot this thing is), CAM is a superb showcase for three rising talents, a riveting behind-the-scenes look into an often misjudged line of work, and a deeply-considered exploration on issues of online identity and performance. Strongly recommended.
[CAM is available worldwide on Netflix, with scenes of violence and nudity.]
*Squeezing it here because paragraph 2 is already too long. The fact that Alice’s couch is still encased in plastic wrap except for the one spot which she sits on is a genius bit of prop use.
**Fine, perhaps it’s not so great that the few men who watch Lola’s shows who appear onscreen are without exception a bunch of creeps whose sole interest is in dominating her entirely. Still, I don’t doubt in the slightest that one of the less desirable aspects of sex work is in fending off weirdos who are unable to separate fantasy from reality.