The Banality of Horny

Netflix’s ‘Cam’ is ‘Black Mirror’, but Dumber and Slower

If you’ve spent any time at all in the dank half of the internet, or you’ve just read a lot about the dark web in The Atlantic, the first half of Netflix’s lurid thriller ‘Cam’ won’t surprise you at all. Did you know, for instance, that girls point webcams at themselves online and get upvoted based on how many horny viewers contribute to their virtual coffers? Or that it gets competitive, with breast-flashing, toy-teasing camgirls jockeying for rankings for a living?

This movie’s turgid (but not in the good way) first half only surprises by showing how banal the world of professional webcamming seems to be. As portrayed by screenwriter and former cammer Isa Mazzei, it feels about as untitillating and soulless as, say, working at Facebook. Against cheap backdrops, bleached-up performers interact with a chat room. They schedule out gimmicky themes on calendars and promise big cum shows if only the viewers will drop in enough digital coinage.

There’s probably an interesting processy exploration that would make this part of the movie more interesting. Instead, with its leaden, foreboding direction and murky color palette, it’s ‘Black Mirror‘,  but dumber and slower. Even its title sequence is a clone of that show, which ends up feeling apropos much later. The soundtrack thumps and drones. Every spinning ceiling fan in the dark is an overreaching David Lynch homage. It’s helladark when the camera’s not pointed at a screen. Can’t anybody on a camgirl salary afford some soft white LED bulbs?

 CAM ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Daniel Goldhaber
Written by: Isa Mazzei
Starring: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid
Running time: 94 min.


What Cam has going for it as a solid turn from lead Madeline Brewer, who at first appears to be as flat and colorless the surrounding film. But as the story of a camgirl whose identity is hijacked develops, Brewer, as Alice AKA Lola, has to juggle multiple variations of the role and the slyness of her performance becomes clear. Lola is a camgirl who specializes in stunts and upping the shock ante on her shows as she tries to crack the top 50 feeds on a site called Free Girls Live. She has a code of sorts: “I don’t do public shows, I don’t tell my guys I love them, and I don’t fake my orgasms.” ‘Kay!

But when she loses control of her online persona, she’s confronted with her family’s mixed feelings about her livelihood. When chat-room participants show up in real life, they’re all sweaty, or bald, or sweaty and bald, or sweaty, bald, married and extremely possessive. She has to deal with her own fracturing psyche. It leads to a genuinely shocking online showdown that makes up for a slow start.

Unfortunately, that’s followed with a ridiculous coda that aims for feminist empowerment and lands at the old saw about insanity being defined by doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Cam suggests that Lola’s skills of persuasion aren’t transferable to any other profession and that she’s inspired toward a futile cycle of reclaiming her identity in front of an audience of horny benefactors. If Cam has respect for its audience, it has absolutely none for camgirl viewers. They’re portrayed as fickle, dangerous losers.

To its credit, the movie’s ultimate antagonist is technologically plausible. There’s a really good core idea here, and for a few moments of the third act, the movie gets there. But like a lot of Netflix B-grade originals, trying too hard to be dark and edgy, it drags in establishing a mood. Too much of Cam plays like someone tried to turn the double-dildo scene from Requiem for a Dream into a full-length feature. It’s smarter when it’s trying to unravel the mystery of online attention, not dwelling on behind-the-cam drama.

Cam portrays a chilling online world where an audience doesn’t really care what’s fake or not, who’s real and who isn’t. It makes no distinction between what’s entertainment and what’s a time-passing excuse for entertainment, streaming right to any screen. However, it really nails the abject horror of being shunned by a tech support hotline for not having the right access password. Now that’s pretty scary.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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