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Cam
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by Jay Seaver

"Horror on the other side of the stream."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though I often lament the fact that impressive films wind up either funded or gobbled up by Netflix, it's worth noting when something like "Cam" comes along and seems like a natural fit for it or some other streaming service, not because it's in any way lower-class than something released theatrically, but because it's very much of the online world, and its plentiful thrills come from knowing how that world works and tapping into the fears around it.

Specifically, the film centers around online adult entertainment. Alice (Madeline Brewer) - screen name "Lola" - is a camgirl whose cheery online persona is not far removed from who she is off-camera. She works out of her apartment though colleagues Fox (Flora Diaz) and Princess (Samantha Robinson) have a bit of dedicated studio space, and though Lola is rising in popularity on the site which hosts them, they all grouse a bit on how effortlessly this seems to come to Baby (Imani Hakim), this site's #1 star. She's careful with how she engages fans like "Tinker" (Patch Darragh) and "Barnacle Rob" (Michael Dempsey), and while her brother Jordan (Devin Druid) knows what she does for a living, her mother (Melora Waters) does not. It's working out pretty well for her, until she finds herself locked out of her account, and not only is tech support not helpful, but a doppelganger is broadcasting on her channel.

The thing I like most about Cam (at least as a person whose day job is in software development) may be one of the smallest and dumbest parts of it, but I can absolutely believe a certain thing tripping things up because some developer didn't take that a user might do something ridiculous into account. We aren't lazy, but we've often got no idea what's a likely situation worth prioritizing. That is not the piece of the film's authenticity that matters most; screenwriter Isa Mazzei has worked in this business and has experience to draw on. Her first-hand knowledge gives the film an impressively grounded perspective that movies about sex work or online commerce often lacks; it all seems to fit together in tidy, unforced fashion, and that lets the more unlikely parts play out.

That lets the movie work as a simple thriller that does a lot of things well. Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber set up a nifty situation for a mystery right off the bat, with a heroine who is pretty easy to root for but nevertheless has a number of people who could wish her harm, and the story walks a tricky line in being able to lead to a grounded whodunit, supernatural horror, or something in between without seeming wishy-washy. It taps into easily recognizable things to build tension, and ultimately settles upon a plot that is chilling in large part because it seems inevitable more than impossible. It's an impressive, exciting build even before considering how what could be just an opening fake-out plays into the self-destruction and resurrection of the climax..

It gets better when you look closely at it, too. As fantastic as its events seem, those early scenes of Alice calling the help desk and getting no support are something we can all relate to, and it is not much of a leap to seeing her situation as the ultimate representation of your account getting hacked, from losing control to the disbelief when you offer that up as an explanation - and the personal frustration of knowing you can start over but finding the ranking and reputation associated with the account valuable. It also plays into the stigma around sex work and the lousy attitude men can have toward the workers and women in general in how disposable Alice is seen to be and the relative popularity of her possibly-inhuman duplicate.

There's also a genuinely impressive performance by Madeline Brewer in the lead. She spends much doing a couple things at once, starting from her first scene where she's trying to ingratiate herself with both us and her other audience for different reasons. Alice and both Lolas are distinct personae, and Brewer applies just the right levels of artifice to get from one to the other while also making Alice's real-world struggles something most in the audience can connect to and feel. There are a lot of times when she could have been directed to exaggerate more, or nor been able to make a certain point without relative restraint, but Lola/Alice is genuine even as her life gets strange, and the film wouldn't work otherwise.

It makes for a clever horror movie, arguably one of the year's best in the genre and one which deserves attention outside of it: It's a combination of personal, specific thrills and something bigger than anybody watching probably has reason to worry about. That's the sweet spot where good horror becomes something great.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32412&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/26/18 02:11:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2018 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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Directed by
  Daniel Goldhaber

Written by
  Isa Mazzei

Cast
  Madeline Brewer
  Patch Darragh
  Melora Walters



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