2018, NR, 94 min. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Starring Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Samantha Robinson.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 16, 2018

The internet, as the philosopher-king Trekkie proclaimed in Avenue Q, is for porn. So many tools now viewed as standard – streaming video, two-way chat, online payments – were pioneered by porn sites. Cam, the debut feature of director Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, depends on the intersection of sex, menace, and commerce on the internet.

Mazzei, herself a former camgirl (don't pretend you don't know what that is), writes what is first and foremost a rare, raw, sometimes charming insight into the life of an online sex worker. Lola (Brewer, best known as The Handmaid's Tale's Janine) has her working relationship with her regular viewers, and makes a comfortable living (a run-in with an old friend stacking shelves at the local convenience store makes the appeal of her work-from-home gig very apparent). But it's a living that, in her everyday life as twentysomething Alice, she has to hide from her family.

The frame is sexually explicit and honest without ever feeling graphic and gratuitous, and that would distinguish Cam enough. Mazzei catches the internal politics of the cam scene – like Lola's obsessive dedication to breaking the top 50 of performers on her service, and her feud with archrival Princess_X (Robinson) – with an analytical eye that only someone from within a scene can ever have. But when a ghost in the machine starts imitating Lola, and picking up Alice's fans, that's when it takes a fascinating and disturbing sharp left turn.

It's a balance that is reminiscent of SXSW award-winning Most Beautiful Island, which similarly looked at a marginalized group (in that case, undocumented Eastern European migrants in NYC) before adding some new and eerie elements. The use of fake Lola – separate to real Lola, and a far remove from Alice – allows Mazzei and and Goldhaber to explore the complexities, contradictions, and perils of our social media identities, and how they take on a very real (virtual) life of their own. It also allows a triple performance from Brewer, one of this year's subtler turns that never lumbers into pastiche but instead lets Lola, faux-Lola, and ultimately Alice flourish as whole characters – at least as whole as anyone gets to be in these electronically divided times. It's Brewer's show all the way, and she paints Alice/Lola as a fun flirt, with a coed vibe that's designed to attract her clients – a persona she determinedly projects and protects.

While Cam feels authentic, it's not a documentary (some of the things Alice does in her driven effort to break the top 50 would get her kicked off for TOS violations), but the sense of the relationship between Alice and her guys, as well as a plot dependent on the complicated definitions of self online, make for a fascinating techno-thriller with zero ill-written hackers. Goldhaber and Mazzei know how to ratchet up the tension, but they manage the incredible trick of never letting the online Cruising drama destroy what is ultimately a sex-positive message, where the sex worker isn't just a passive victim, or background set dressing.

A version of this review ran during Fantastic Fest.

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Cam, Daniel Goldhaber, Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey, Samantha Robinson

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