2018 has been the year of nostalgia horror. Riding on the popularity of Stranger Things and IT, we’ve seen films like Ready Player One bank entirely on the audience’s love of pop culture, while the upcoming Suspiria and Halloween movies continue the trend of reviving past successes. One often has to look to film festivals for contemporary narratives. After a year filled with lesser homages to bygone eras, Fantasia Film Festival delivers the twisty digital landscape of Cam, a film that feels like a beacon of genre cinema’s future.
What does this mean, exactly? The film seems like standard fare at first. Screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber’s opening minutes echo the poppy joviality of Happy Death Day or Better Watch Out—a disarming tactic that prepares the viewer for something more sentimental. Its unique premise sets it apart from the get-go: our millennial protagonist, Alice (played with endless charm and force by Madeline Brewer), makes money as a cam girl. Her online persona, Lola, is as structured and fan-pleasing as any YouTube star or Instagram model. From the start, we’re embroiled in her need to reach the top of her field.
Even without the paranoia that descends later on, this concept rings with anxiety. Alice has to protect her identity, hide her job from her mom, and expose herself to unstable male strangers—all to pay the bills. Her unusual predicament echoes the stories about NYU students joining escort services to pay tuition. Millennials face an astronomically high cost of living, and they know what they have to do to survive. Writer Isa Mazzei keeps the story from shaming Alice for her actions—the audience has no room to doubt her until she inevitably begins doubting herself.
This is a film that could only have come from the turmoil surrounding the Me Too movement and the necessary ousting of some monstrous figureheads. In the hands of a male auteur, this could have become another mother!—a brutal exploration of a woman’s lack of control in this world without acknowledging that women can, and do, fight back. Alice isn't like Jennifer Lawrence's character from mother! She's resourceful, smart, and determined to protect what’s hers. She is a hero for other millennials, and the subsequent Gen Z kids entering this lawless world of online personas can take cues from her. Anyone who has used a dating app, or even posted on Instagram, knows the paranoia that eventually consumes Alice’s life.
The less said about that paranoia, the better. Mazzei keeps the viewer as confused as Alice without ever losing the thread of reality. There is as much convincing drama in this film as there is horror, and muscle-tensing suspense as well. The supporting cast—particularly the Love Witch herself, Samantha Robinson as a catty competitor, and Melora Walters as Alice’s nuanced mother—maintains a believable human element at the heart of the surreal nightmare. Like It Follows or Get Out, the psycho-horror isn’t damning, it’s just scary. That makes it all the more powerful and relevant: the world is as insane as Alice feels.
Daniel Goldhaber’s precise direction (there’s a killer tracking shot halfway through the film), Mazzei’s personal touches to the script, and Brewer’s heartfelt performance combine to deliver a wholly modern horror film. There’s dread and shock, tension and heartbreak, and though the story loses its intensity near the end (as these films often do) it never betrays its core theme. This is an anthem for those who have self-destructed in order to live up to an impossible standard. It’s also a compassionate warning that the Internet is as labyrinthine and deadly as it is wondrous, but we have to learn to live with it somehow.
Movie Score: 4/5
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