Monday, November 19, 2018

'Cam' Review: A Deeply Unsettling Exploration of Identity

This year has been an incredible year for surprises. At the end of each year, film critics and aficionados create countless lists of their most anticipated films of the upcoming year. More often than not, these include big tentpole releases, superhero films, summer blockbusters, and their ilk. More often than not, that's because these are the movies that have the most optics that far in advance. What we never see coming are the small, festival darlings from first time filmmakers that find brilliance in their restrictions. Cam is one of these surprises.

Cam is a horror story about a girl named Alice (Madeline Brewer), who is living a double life. To her family, she is still just Alice. But online, in her professional world, she is an on-the-rise camgirl named Lola. As we join her, she's putting in the work to crack the top 50 girls on her site, with the long term goal of, of course, getting into the top ten, and eventually number one. One morning she wakes up and finds that she can no longer log into her account, and the story quickly leaps into the land of existential terror.

Cam, at it's core, is a very intelligent film about identity. It's about who Alice is, who she wants to be, and what other people want her to be. Alice doing her cam show is her livelihood, it is her career, and both she and the film treat it with the importance of any other job. Alice puts on her online persona of Lola in the same way that a lawyer puts on his suit in the morning. But, despite her success and how intense her drive is, Alice is still afraid to come out to her mother about her choice in career. Cam, despite also being a spectacularly effective horror film, is really about Alice figuring out how to overcome her hang-up's and insecurities and become the best version of herself.

The film is director Daniel Goldhaber's debut feature, and creating a film that is so masterful makes him a talent to certainly keep and eye on moving forward. But he is also working from a ludicrously great script from first-time screenwriter Isa Mazzei, herself a former camgirl. Mazzei's past experience makes this film burst at the seems with a sense of authenticity, and paints the profession with the respect that it deserves.

Cam is also shot by female cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi, also her first feature. Cam is a film that could easily use sex and nudity to lure in slobbering viewers, but instead treats the female nudity with a calm casualness, bordering on calculating. Where a writer's weapon of choice is the pen, Alice's body is the tool of her craft, and the movie knows that. She knows just what to show, and how far to leave something unzipped to make the hordes come back for more. She is great at her job.

I think most young female actors would take a passing glance at Cam and turn their noses up at it. But luckily Madeline Brewer brings the same reverence she has for acting to bare for Alice's work. Brewer seems so comfortable with her body, and even in Alice's most revealing moments she never seems vulnerable. Instead, she reserves her vulnerabilities for the moments where she is not Lola, and is just Alice spending time with her loved ones, which is so perfectly fitting for the themes of the film. Alice is most naked when she is with her family.

The film is also brutally honest in its depiction of men. Alice's clients are the sort of slimy, weaselly types that you would expect. One client is married, and sending photos of his particularly unimpressive package to Alice. Another married client is secretly meeting up with his favorite camgirls in real life. A third lacks any sort of normal social niceties, and instead spends his time trying to be a "white knight" type to the camgirls he admires. At a point in the film, two male police officers respond to call. They are gross and totally ineffectual. Alice's father isn't present in the film, and while it is never addressed, it sort of tells you all you need to know about him. As someone that almost assuredly had to suffer through the full spectrum of male nuisance, writer Isa Mazzei captures the entirety of male behavior in one masterful stroke.

I am just so impressed with this film. It is on Netflix now, so it is only a few button presses away from you at this exact moment. Check it out, I don't think you will be disappointed. I can't wait to see where all these talents go next.

I give Cam a 5 out of 5. It's on Netflix now.