Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Cam (2018)

Cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer), working under the nom de plum of “Lola”, is ambitious to the point of self-destructiveness, trying to climb the somewhat dubious ladder of the cam girl top 100 of her site with an intensity clearly born of the perverse puritan ethos that built the USA, even if it is applied in a direction that’s rather the opposite of puritanism. Right now, things seem to be going upwards in the top 100 regards.

That is, until Alice suddenly can’t log into her account anymore. If she has been hacked, she has been hacked by someone very peculiar, though. Someone looking and sounding exactly like her is still casting, just going a bit further, and into extremer directions Alice has not dared to take until now (though it would clearly only have been a question of time, really). There’s something truly weird and potentially supernatural happening here, and Alice might just not be the first victim of whatever is happening to her now.

Say what you will about Netflix, but as long as it continues to put at least some of its money into stuff as ambitious and accomplished as this feature debut of director Daniel Goldhaber (with a script by Isa Mazzei and Goldhaber), I’m perfectly happy to give it its disappointing productions (as if anyone cared, I know).

To my eyes at least, Cam is as good as intelligent horror gets (I don’t have anything against the dumb stuff, as you know), starting out in a way that suggests the beginning of a sleazy erotic thriller and getting weirder and more meaningful by the minute. This is a film that certainly has a lot to say about female self-exploitation in late capitalism, the tiny and not so tiny pressures put on its main characters to function as she’s supposed to, the drive to personal betterment turned into misguided and destructive directions, and the horrible void at the centre of all ambition. To my great pleasure, Cam does all this without morally judging Alice as many another film would (probably with glee). What happens to her is certainly connected to the way she leads her life – or really the way she sees life – but this is not a film where the intrusion of the Weird functions simply as a way to punish a character; the inexplicable – somewhat ironically – is really there to help explain the quotidian. Which, again to my pleasure, doesn’t mean Cam treats its supernatural horror exclusively as a metaphor – rather, it is metaphor, threat, and the suggestion of something dark under the skin of the world all at once. All of this is also a fantastic, truly contemporary update of the old doppelganger motif too, demonstrating how resonant the old bag still is when you want to talk about us human beings and the borders between the real and the unreal.

Unlike a lot of other media from the Weird side of the fantastic, Cam shows a lot of compassion for its characters. Not just Alice, mind you, even someone as deeply problematic as her decidedly creepy, sad, regular Tinker (Patch Darragh) is written as a human being. In a lesser film, Alice herself could have easily become an insufferable cliché of hysteric ambition, but in the combination of the carefully humane, yet also pretty funny, script, and Brewer’s physically intense but also nuanced performance, she feels just like one of us – flawed but not hopeless, and certainly not responsible for many of her flaws. That’s what the world and parents are for, after all.

Goldhaber’s direction is intensely stylish, making impressive use of the contrast between the artificial and hyper-real colours of Alice’s online life and the more simply real ones of her life offline, clearly taking pains to let these borders slip visually at just the right moments, when the borders of Alice’s lives slip for her, too.

All of this – and quite a bit more – comes together to form what I believe is a rather special film.

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