Remember The Net? It’s an early career Sandra Bullock thriller about an internet security expert who telecommutes from home and has very few actual face-to-face relationships, either professionally or personally. So, once an imposter emerges and takes over her life she has precious few ways to proof, “No, that’s not me!” Another entry in Hollywood’s rich tradition of meeting new technologies with worst-case scenario cautionary tales, The Net warned the world of 1995 that this hot new thing called the internet could be scary.
Though prescient in many ways, The Net is not a particularly great movie. Still, it’s what kept popping into my head while watching Cam, Netflix’s new debut horror/thriller from director/producer Daniel Goldhaber and writer/producer Isa Mazzei. Maybe it’s the similarity of the three-letter titles, star-is-born turn from Madeline Brewer, or the little ways in which Cam is similar but crucially different from its cinematic predecessor.
The Net is very big (there are eventually shootouts to be survived and government conspiracies to be uncovered), of its time (two words: Dennis Miller), and speculative of where things seemed to be heading, albeit clumsily filtered through standard Hollywood tropes. Cam is much smaller, but equally of its time, more believable and a warning of a looming future where we won’t be able to trust our eyes anymore.
The plot: Alice (Brewer) is a webcam girl who goes by the name Lola. With All About Eve-style ambition, she is desperate to reach the top 50 ranking of her cam girl network. So, she’s escalating her game to include bigger and wilder stunts, like fake suicides or two-girl shows featuring her riding a Sybian for a legitimately dangerous length of time. One morning, however, she’s suddenly locked out of her webcam account, and there’s someone who looks just like her carrying on with her shows. Worse yet: this bitch is moving up in the rankings fast. She’s a better “Lola” than the real one.
Who is this imposter? And what can Alice possibly do about it?
To answer the first question would be spoiling the ending, but the answer to the latter is, sadly, not much. The webcam company can’t do anything because nothing looks out of the ordinary on their end. The cops are more interested in simply harassing Alice and treating her like a no-good sex worker than to take her claims of identity theft seriously. Even her fellow cam girls, many of whom live together in a kind of Barbie Dream House for webcammers, are no help, some because they simply don’t want to since she’s a professional revival, others because, well, better her than me.
This leaves Alice on her own, unable to explain herself when “Lola”’s increasingly outrageous antics, including a Kendra Sunderland-like library girl moment, brings unwanted attention to her real life and family. At the same time, as she leans on some of her prior sugar daddies for financial support she realizes just how deeply sad and dangerous the cam girl/cam girl fan relationship can be. Still, some of the most effective scenes might just be when Alice looks up at “Lola” on a computer screen and transforms a complicated mixture of emotions – anger, disgust, envy, despair – into an unmistakable death stare.
Being pitched by Netflix and discussed by most reviewers as a horror movie, Cam is only really scary for how real it seems. Isa Mazzei, ala Diablo Cody’s famous backstory of stripping and blogging about it, is a former camgirl herself and clearly knows the ins and outs of the world with astonishing clarity. Goldhaber and his production team nail the look of the camgirl world while Brewer and Mazzei perfect the faked intimacy, transactional nature of it all. Moreover, anyone who’s seen Follow This’ “The Future of Fakes” episode about the oncoming storm of fake video and audio which could fool even a mother into thinking she’s talking to her own son instead of a bot knows the scenario presented here is not so outrageous.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How do you rage against the machine of the internet when it or someone using it has replaced you with your own personal Simone mixed with Videodrome and completely taken away your agency? A horrifying idea to consider, but it sure makes for an absolutely enthralling movie, one which announces Daniel Goldhaber, Isa Mazzei, and Madeline Brewer as new voices to watch.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
Mazzei’s past experience with camming was an asset to the conception of the film but not always the actual making of it, mostly because many in Hollywood mirrored the views of the cops in the film and neither respected nor took her seriously.
“I had production companies who, when we would pitch them the film, said ‘Well, why do you need to be on set, what are you going to do, peddle sex toys for cash?’ These are the kind of things that were said to me in Hollywood trying to sell this film,” Mazzei told Yahoo Movies UK. “Other production companies would say to me ‘You didn’t really write this, did you?’ Questioning my ability, because I was a sex worker, to even write a script.” Blumhouse eventually stepped forward with a more enlightened view.