Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Writer: Isa Mazzei
Producer: Isabelle Link-Levy, Adam Hendricks, John Lang, Greg Gilreath
Stars: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Flora Diaz, Samantha Robinson, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Quei Tann
A camgirl finds her personal life spiraling scarily after a doppelganger mysteriously assumes her online identity.
It takes only six minutes for “Cam” to sink its first hook into your psyche. Alice, performing as a camgirl named Lola, teases for tips from her regular bevy of online admirers. The bigger the donation, the better the show, she winks. An anonymous avatar suddenly changes the chat room’s tone by making an unexpected request. He wants Alice to replace her false phallus with a knife. Extensive insults and an increasing stream of digital cash provoke Alice to defiantly pick up the blade. With the weapon against her throat, Alice proposes a dare.
What happens next, and immediately thereafter, sets a suitably askew stage for the 85 maddening minutes that follow. It’s not unlike Gene Wilder somersaulting after losing his grip on Willy Wonka’s cane. From that moment forward, nothing can be seen as a certainty. The film forms its fantasy around curiosity for what is to come, and disbelief over what has already happened.
Through this intriguing opening, which doubles as the first of many masterful moves of mood-making, “Cam” stocks its debit card with plentiful good faith to get it through requisite exposition. An early drag can be felt as all of the pieces and players are gradually put on the board. Yet the lingering effect of that initial shock drapes an uncomfortable pall over Alice’s average life to suggest something insidious lies ahead.
That something is a doppelganger. Alice rises one morning to find herself inexplicably locked out of her camgirl account. More inexplicably, an exact duplicate of Alice is performing in her place, and the double’s show is definitely live. With a strange stalker seemingly lurking around her daily routine too, Alice’s figurative identity crisis now takes tangible form as a “Twilight Zone” nightmare she cannot wake up from.
“Cam” predominantly features only one woman often in the same relatively sparse room. That’s usually permission for focus to wander to a clock, phone, or different distraction as the setup of a single person in a single location grows stale.
Except Daniel Garber’s finger-snap editing tricks attention spans into staying on the screen by constantly cutting to chat windows, visitor counts, or other inserts that pump up the pace. Plotting definitively beats the film’s pulse. But carefully considered scene assembly co-creates rhythm with the fiction, resulting in a hypnotic visual style to echo the mesmeric mystery.
Naturally, no movie centered on one woman would work without a complex character and a captivating actress to construct her. As Alice, Madeline Brewer of “The Handmaid’s Tale” shapes an incredibly cunning and charismatic personality bearing nearly none of the traditional trappings associated with a cardboard stereotype forced into any of her positions.
Alice’s self-value drops low, but her self-sufficiency remains high. From calling Customer Service to consulting a friend to creating new logins, no stone stays unturned when Alice works to logically unravel her situation. Neither hopeless nor helpless, Alice’s skillfully subtle manipulation of a man who unknowingly reveals personally identifying information about someone else comes straight from a master spy’s playbook. Alice’s fierce resilience and resourcefulness makes it easy to burn white-hot with frustrated empathy as an invested viewer. Seeing Alice reach the end of her tumultuous tunnel becomes crucial to relieving your own internal tension.
Some viewers will have issues with what is and isn’t ultimately revealed. If you’re usually left unsatisfied when an explanatory bow doesn’t tie up loose ends, “Cam” may confound you with its conclusion.
You’re equally bound for disappointment if the backdrop of Alice’s profession grooms expectations for sensationalized sexuality. “Cam’s” cerebral thrills are not centered on titillation. “Cam” is a clever, creepy, completely compelling character deconstruction and reconstruction nestled inside an enigmatically eerie horror story.
The movie casts such an unbreakable spell with its David Lynch-like dreamscape, an engaged imagination can miss plentiful parallels about false faces, self-reflection, and lifestyle redirection. By layering a sickly current of unease beneath a naturalistic depiction of stagnant suburbia, the unusual texture terrifically complements the deceptive duality theme. Marking a massively impressive first feature from director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, and employing excellent performances from supporting players as well as its centerpiece star, “Cam” is without question one of the year’s top thrillers.
Review Score: 95