Netflix’s new horror thriller Cam is one of the smartest, rawest genre films of the year, introducing audiences to the world of online sex work in the camming community and the passionate drive of the women who make their living there. Written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei, Cam offers an all-too-rare honesty and respect when it comes to the depiction of sex workers online, and thanks to Mazzei’s collaboration with director Daniel Goldhaber and actress Madeline Brewer, Cam is also a bold, accomplished thriller about the fear of losing your identity online.
Brewer stars as Alice, an ambitious young cam girl who performs under the name Lola on the site FreeGirls.Live, where she embraces her unconventional creative vision to climb the ranks and earn a living. Alice is passionate and driven, fueled by a desire to fulfill her creativity and become a top girl on the site. She loves what she does for a living. She performs themed shows (her calendar notes a week inspired by the seven deadly sins, for example), and veering away from the more conventional strip teases, paint shows, BDSM-tinged spanking sessions, Alice pushes the boundaries with her performances. In the opening scene she stages her own death, slitting her throat after having a performative meltdown on camera. Her fans love it and her rank climbs, driving her towards the coveted Top 50.
Her ascent catches the eye and ire of a cruel top girl known as Princess (Samantha Robinson), who demands her fans make Lola drop by 10 spots before she starts her show. Being the passionate, driven performer that she is, Alice doesn’t back down, she doubles down, going to a camming studio and performing a show on a Vibatron (an intense orgasm machine a la the Sybian) to regain her spot. It works, and she has a good night on cam, but everything changes when she tries to log into her account the next morning and discovers she’s locked out. Worse yet, her account is somehow live. She watches herself splash around in a blow-up pool, sitting in an exact replica of her cam room. Alice assumes FGL is glitching and streaming an old show, but when she tries to tell her fans something’s wrong in the chat, she’s immediately banned.
Things go from freaky to downright terrifying when she realizes this isn’t a recording — it’s happening live and she can interact with herself. When Lola addresses Alice directly by her username, Alice realizes there’s something much stranger and more sinister at play. Alice is confused and afraid (and unable to work), attempting to sort it out through proper channels, but neither FGL or the police do anything to help her. Doing some investigating on her own, she turns to her loyal customer Tinker (Patch Darragh), who knows just enough about what’s happening to point Alice in the right direction. “I found it just like you. I think it can take anything it can find of you online,” Tinker says when she confronts him. “It’s on all of the cam sites.”
Tinker doesn’t clarify exactly what “it” is, but he admits he knew Lola was going to be copied and replaced. “I’ve watched enough to guess who it’ll choose. I don’t know what it is or how it’ll work,” he says. Their encounter makes it clear that Lola isn’t the first copy, and soon Alice discovers BabyGirl_, the top camgirl on FGL and another girl who has clearly been copied. Her shows share exact dialogue with those used by the Lola doppelganger. Looking for more information, Alice meets up with Barney (Michael Bempsey), one of her biggest tippers and a “whale” member of FGL, who loyally tips many of the top girls on the site. Barney reveals that BabyGirl_’s real name is Hannah Darin, and when Alice googles the young woman, she discovers the horrifying truth that the real Hannah died in a car accident months ago — yet her copy is still performing live shows online.
Armed with new information, Alice uses Tinker’s account to stage a showdown with Lola Two, using her humanity as her strength. She sets up a chat with Lola, showing the people in the chat that there are two versions of her. She baits Lola into a game of “monkey see, monkey do,” where the viewers decide the winner through voting. Lola wins the first round of votes, but then Alice leans into her strength — she is real, and her vulnerability is part what her fans love about her. She slams her face down against her table, brutally breaking her nose. Lola can’t follow suit, glitching out, and the votes shift in Alice’s direction. She wins, and as her prize, she demands Lola reinstate her access to her account. The room stops tipping until Lola complies, and Alice immediately logs in and deletes the Lola_Lola account for good.
You might think Alice’s terrifying experience would keep her offline for good, but she’s committed to her work and her craft as a cam girl. Alice reinvents herself — a new look and a new cam room — under the name EveBot. She knows what’s out there now, and she’s ready to defend herself. Determined to climb the ranks again, Alice tells her mother that if she gets copied again, she’ll just delete the account and start over. Nothing’s going to stop her from reaching her goal.
So what exactly is the mysterious force that takes over these cam girl’s accounts? When I sat down with Mazzei, Goldhaber and Brewer after their Fantastic Fest screening, I took the opportunity to dig into the ending with them. “It’s an algorithm based on Lola One,” Brewer explained. But Goldhaber and Mazzei decidedly didn’t want to spell it out for the audience. “We had versions of the script early on where she goes to find Lola and there’d be servers and all of this stuff that.” Ultimately, Goldhaber explained, that was “just distracting from the core of the story, because it is a story about fractured identity.” He continued, “This is going to be from Alice’s point of view. Alice doesn’t really care what this thing is, she just wants to go back on her show.”
That drive and ambition to get back to work was a key component for Mazzei and Goldhaber, who looked to movies like Black Swan, Whiplash, and even Rocky as inspiration — As Goldhaber said, films about “a passionate artist who will stop at nothing to do their craft.” And just like the artists in those films, who return to their passions despite all the costs and suffering for their art, Alice goes back in the end. Mazzei explained, “That’s exactly what Alice does. She goes through this hellish experience and at the end, of course she’s going to go back and do what she loves, because that’s what she loves, there’s no other option for her.”
Cam is now streaming on Netflix.