Cam (Goldhaber, 2018)

This film does a good job of fooling you into thinking you’ve pressed play on a low-rent affair, with sets that look like they were assembled on a tight budget, and a premise that feels pulled from the dark recesses of the Internet. Camming (a form of online sex work) has not been an especially mainstream topic in film, and seems to be brought up mostly in taboo terms. Hence, why a film explicitly about this industry would come off to the uninitiated as a form of cheap eroticism rather than something substantial. In my case, I was wary about the message it would send. The early vibes I was getting signalled that Cam would ultimately demonize this form of sex work, and these vibes intensified when Madeline Brewer’s camgirl is pressured to slit her throat in front of her perverse viewer base, who tip her money in extravagant amounts so they can find erotic pleasure in her gory demise. Sorry for the mild spoiler, but if you’re easily triggered by graphic violence, you will thank me. Of course, as soon as she does it, she reveals it was just an elaborate joke, with a flesh-colored strip and fake blood galore. She laughs, signs off, the title card pops up, and you feel like this film has become deranged almost immediately.

The derangement has a place, and what pleasantly surprised me was that it was not to vilify cam models who choose this line of work. It is, rather, more interested in how the mechanics of camming—its metrics, its habituating allurements, its need for an extreme and dissociative form of performativity—can have detrimental effects if not monitored properly. By opening the film with a girl faking her suicide in order to amass a larger viewership, and thus in turn validating her self-worth by directly equating it to her online popularity, the viewer can quickly see that this is terribly unhealthy. Once that much is established, the film now has to work to have Brewer’s Alice (or “Lola,” as she calls herself in the cam world) see it, too. The way it does this is very clever: it has to “split” her camgirl persona (Lola) from her true personality (Alice), so that Alice (the Performer) is now obligated to watch Lola (the Preformed). Alice’s “I” must be aggressively outperformed by a distinct “You” that is also necessarily “Me,” until the performance becomes so abject in its horror that it self-implodes. I know this sounds a bit like claptrap, but when you see it realized, you will understand the mechanics. What it boils down to is having someone who has cultivated a new (but artificial) selfhood see it independently from all pretence so that its monstrousness (for lack of a better word) can be reckoned with and exorcised.

Note that the monstrousness is not the act of camming itself. This is how Cam defines itself. Naturally, like any form of sex work, camming has its inherent risks, and some of those are detailed here. There’s no doubt, for instance, that misogynistic men pose a constant danger. But what is crucial is the film’s belief that girls who do this do not deserve demonization. Alice’s mother does not trash her webcam and force her to find a desk job, and even more telling, the film ends with Alice creating a new account in which to continue camming. She returns with a new persona in tow, and while we cannot speculate on different “Eve” will be from “Lola,” we can at least assume Alice won’t be putting a loaded gun into her mouth for 50,000 tokens. We can at least be assured that those days are long behind her.

P.S. One more thing: this plot does hinge on the assumption that camgirls are allowed to get away with playing with weapons and pretending to kill themselves, when obviously they would most likely receive lifetime bans for trying to pull those stunts in real life. This is the only time the film has to stretch its credibility, but I think the results are so intriguing that a bit of creative license ultimately does not matter.