Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei debut with Cam, an unsettling film that explores modern fears to reconcile one’s online and offline identity.
Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a camgirl with a carefully constructed online alter ego. She works as Lola, whose fans pay her in website tokens and gifts. But it’s not the money she’s in for: Alice is determined to rise through the ranks. Creating an elaborate list of ideas for each show, she goes as far as faking a suicide on a live broadcast for more viewers and tokens. Gradually, she moves up, making sure she never breaks the rules she made clear for her fans. But the stat numbers aren’t growing fast enough, so she reluctantly arranges a shared show with one of her friends. The next morning, she finds herself locked out of her account – not only does she fail to recover it, but she also finds out that somebody still uses it to broadcast. Discovering an enigmatic double who took her place, she thinks that a website glitch replays her old shows. When the details of her past performances don’t match up, she realises that hat her identity has been stolen. Her lookalike takes over the channel: the new Lola shatters the restrictions that Alice established and thrives on controversy. Trying to get her account back, she tracks down the potential suspects and follows the traces to uncover the mystery behind the hack.
Daniel Goldhaber creates mistrust from the very beginning, starting it up with a few rapidly paced sequences that set a pattern for the story’s progress. With the screenwriter Isa Mazzei, they create a credible world for the characters that sucks the audience in without overexplaining the mechanics of it. From the chatroom to the preoccupations of the protagonist, we’re taken into the world of the Internet where the identity is a commodity, and it can be easily traded off or destroyed. The viewers make or break the camgirls, and vote with their money, encouraging daring acts with higher payback. But the girls hold a small slice of power over their fans: they can go offline or block abusers. Once they’re stripped of that right, there’s little they can control.
Bathed in colour, Cam uses an aesthetic that upholds the unnerving atmosphere: even the most ordinary of things look creepy in neon-coloured lighting. The camera looks at the screen only when it’s necessary to do so. Instead, it gives us a peek behind the scenes, broadening the picture of Alice’s life. And the editing helps us to experience the rapid pace of the events in real time: it moves us smoothly from the cyber-dimension to the physical world, playing with short cuts when Lola chats to her fans and using longer, considerably slower ones when Alice is running errands.
Exploring the modern fears, the film plunges into the conflicts between an online and offline identity. In the opening sequence, Lola is entertaining the guests when the troll appears on her channel, encouraging her to cut herself. She follows through; seconds later, fake blood gushes out of her neck, she removes the make-up, then turns the tense moment into a Snapchat video. It’s a signpost of a performance – the job she takes on – that others can’t separate from her “real” self. Lola and Alice might initially be the same person, but the boundaries between them are drawn clearly.
That doesn’t help her reverse the damage caused by her double. Without any other form of protection, Alice finds herself struggling with the attention prompted by her online persona. The new Lola reveals the details of her life that she wanted to keep private, yet the policemen refuse to treat her seriously. Instead of investigating the identity theft, they advise to “stay off the Internet” and make lewd comments that disrespect the victim. She can’t count on support from her loved ones either: her mother doesn’t know about her occupation, while her brother needs to deal with his peer group while he tries to cover it up.
The film turns the body image and self-reassurance into a potent defence mechanism. It starts with a camera: creating the image and broadcasting it to her fans defines Alice’s sense of self. When that reflection turns to be a doppelgänger and the stability is thrown off balance, she dissociates, falling prey to the growing terror. She doesn’t know herself anymore – there’s no reassurance in the persona she sees on her screen, even if Lola looks exactly like her. The digital image doesn’t indicate coherence between the two anymore as it starts challenging the protagonist’s boundaries.
But the reflection is also Alice’s ticket to reclaiming the agency over her own body. Her unsettled sense of identity is put at stake, questioned even by the people who know her. When there’s no other way to prove her individuality, self-identification turns into a weapon. Not only does it turn into a striking visual spectacle but carries additional emotional power as we see the heroine trying to challenge her evil twin.
Cam balances the reality and the digital space, creating a believable, immersive environment for the events to unfold. Minimalistic in storytelling and effective in its visual execution, the film spins a popular motif to add a darker side to an online experience.
Cam opens as a part of the London Film Festival. Its wide release date (Netflix) is yet to be announced.