In the new thriller Cam, which premieres simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters on Friday, pretty much everything that cam girl Alice (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer) fears might happen does. What surprises, though, is the specificity of her fears. Alice is afraid, of course, that her mom, younger brother, and the rest of their small town in New Mexico will discover her night job. And she’s probably not alone in her worries that a customer or two will breach the substantial but understandably imperfect wall that she has built between her professional and personal lives. But most of her days are spent fretting about the details of her work: Does her act push enough boundaries? Which patrons should she cultivate relationships with—and at which others’ expense? Can she ever be online enough to crack her site’s Top 50?
Alice is a sex worker, with all the attendant risks and occasional humiliations—and this moody, neon-lit film never shies away from that fact. But Alice is also an artist. In front of the camera, she’s a convincing actress and improviser as the sweet but fanciful “Lola.” Behind it, she’s a writer, a director, and a set designer. (Decorated with oversize flowers and teddy bears, the spare bedroom that she uses as her set seems to be themed Barbie After Hours.) So when the unimaginable happens—Alice’s account is hacked, and a doppelgänger starts performing her act, with less originality but more popularity—her indignation is ours, too.
But Cam takes its time getting to that mystery. That’s more than fine, as the film, written by former webcam model Isa Mazzei and first-time director Daniel Goldhaber, immerses us in the dual economies of sex work and online attention. The slow reveal of the day-to-day realities of cam-girling is the movie’s real striptease—all of it surrounded by an aura of authenticity. (Small-bladdered Alice, for example, constantly apologizes to her clients for the frequency of her bathroom visits.) And though Alice denies that her chosen career has anything to do with a personal sense of female empowerment, the film assumes an unspoken but unmissable feminist consideration of sex work. The disjunct between Alice’s seeming regularness and Lola’s over-the-top performances—sometimes involving blood capsules—is the tip of the iceberg. More fascinating is the sense of safety and control that that webcam-modeling allows—and how illusory that can become when male entitlement gets unleashed from social niceties.
If the first half of Cam is pleasantly episodic and purringly tense, the latter half—in which Alice searches for her hacker—is clever, inventive, and wonderfully evocative. A kind of Black Mirror for cam girls, its frights are limited to this tiny slice of the web, but no less resonant for that. We see Alice strive to maintain a certain standard of creative rawness, even as she’s pressured by the machine in front of her to become something of an automaton herself. And versions of the scene where a desperate Alice calls the cops for help with the hack, only to be faced with confusion about the net and suspicion about her job, have doubtlessly played out countless times in the past two decades. At the intersection of an industry that didn’t exist a decade ago and an ageless trade that’s seldom portrayed candidly in popular culture, the film finds stakes—and a resolution—whose freshness is hard to understate.
The wonderfully versatile Brewer, who’s in virtually every scene, pulls off essentially three “characters”: Alice, Alice as Lola, and Bizarro Lola. It’s a bravura performance that flits between several realities while keeping the film grounded as the plot twists make narrative leap after narrative leap. Cam’s villain perhaps represents more an admirable provocation than a satisfying answer. But with such naked ambition on display, who could turn away?