Monday, November 19, 2018

In Real Life: CAM

Like its Blumhouse cousins Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web, though without their all-on-a-screen gimmick, Cam is a horror movie that treats the fears inherent in internet spaces seriously, manifesting the way digital dilemmas bleed into real world anxiety. Unlike the more supernatural bent of those other films, however, this one gets its chilling premise out of nothing more than a hacked account and a mysterious imposter. It stars Madeline Brewer as a bright young woman who makes good money doing shows on a cam site. She’s not nude, but often as close as you can be to it. She flirtatiously solicits tokens from her anonymous fans, seen only, except for a couple high rollers, as a scroll of filthy chatter sliding up the side of her screen. Even before the film’s high concept creepiness begins in earnest, the early half-hour or so is the sort of film that sharply and observantly shows a particular life not often given attention. Here is a relatively new job category, or iteration thereof, at once marginal and omnipresent, hidden in plain sight, disreputable and isolated, yet highly visible, just a click away. 

There’s great specificity in the film’s portrayal, showing her ease with the block button, her cultivation of big tippers, her prep work, showmanship and carefully undressed modesty. She pays close attention to her ranking on the site, eyeing the more popular ladies with envy, but proud of cracking the top 50 most nights. Her hairdresser mother (Melora Walters) only knows she works as a freelance web developer. Her teenage brother (Devin Druid) knows what she does, but views it from a cautious remove. (His friends’ giggling viewership is not so easy for him to handle, though.) Her life is comfortable but secretive, at once on display and in the shadows. She is safely in control and totally vulnerable. Writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s startling and assured feature debut has such a spark of reality in this early going (undoubtedly bolstered by his co-writer, actual ex-cam model Isa Mazzei) that even if it didn’t become a horror movie it’d be a notable work. Luckily, kicking into a thriller gear churns the film’s interest in our digital vulnerability, and the ugly harassment women, in particular, receive when daring to take up space online, into a further dizzying, unsettling place. This cam girl finds her password won’t work and, while troubleshooting, notices her account is broadcasting. It’s her, but not her, and the website doesn’t, or can’t, help. She’s been hijacked by an uncannily accurate lookalike. Maybe it’s a troll. Maybe it’s a deep fake. Maybe it’s an algorithm. Maybe it's a glitch. Maybe it's all of the above. But it’s just too right and too destabilizing. This sends her on a spiral of paranoia and uncertainty, looking desperately for a solution before her life falls apart. It all culminates in a dizzying cascade of windows and mirrors, digital and real life collapsing and interacting, tabs within tabs. But all along the film's sensitivity to its lead’s emotional state makes it clear that the internet lives in a peculiar space, removed from reality and yet indisputably a large part of creating it these days. On the internet, as the old New Yorker cartoon goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. And yet our online selves become these digital doppelgängers with a life of their own that’s nonetheless a part of our own. It is real and not, a space where we are ourselves and not. And that’s scary enough.

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