Extremely Online and Incredibly Close: Netflix's 'Cam' Review


Live From The Algorithm is a weekly review series taking a look at the wide variety of Netflix Original Content, from the best to the worst to the outright bizarre.

by Jacob Wallace

Do you remember the first time you saw “Nymphomaniac: Vol 1” on Netflix and felt like you’d rediscovered porn? Or when you first watched “Hot Girls Wanted,” and decided you’d reached Nudity Enlightenment? Those were simpler days, when “tasteful” explorations of porn on Netflix were a novel, titillating idea. Now, as we’ve fully penetrated (sorry) the Era of Chris Pine’s Dick, we’ve become increasingly desensitized to the idea of nudity, tasteful or not, on Netflix. As we become more comfortable with naked bodies on-screen, we might have to reexamine what a film about nudity really means in 2019.

“Cam” reads most like an allegory of oversharing oneself on the web. The movie is about cam girl Alice Ackerman, known online as Lola_Lola, and the nightmare she finds herself in as she’s locked out of her account and subsequently loses control of the online version of herself. Lola_Lola, now a mysterious digital echo of Alice, continues to perform live without her real-life counterpart’s participation. As Lola_Lola grows far more popular online than the real Alice ever was, Alice risks losing control of her real-world identity to an online automaton that might as well be her.

Honestly, if you wanted to see a movie with the same aesthetic but less story than a Petra Collins Instagram post, this is the movie for you. It has… the color pink going for it, as well as, I guess, moody shots of a rundown hair salon and trailer home in Arizona. The most inventive directing choices come from the screening of the cam shows, where the audience sees Alice primarily through the digital eyes of a chatroom, with chats rolling in live on screen. As audience members, we are supposedly among these voyeurs, greedily consuming Lola_Lola’s body for entertainment, lobbing digital “tokens” her way so she can perform certain acts for us. This trick would be more impressive if it wasn’t the deepest thing in the movie.

One of the most baffling scenes comes when the audience is first introduced to Alice’s family. Her seventeen year-old brother is apparently aware of her camming and is totally chill with it, since he doesn’t bat an eye when she shows him a video of her show and he reacts with a casual “That’s actually kinda cool.” Y’know, just siblings sharing their lives with each other! Maybe this is the actual dynamic in the world of families with cam models, but it’s undermined by a scene later on when her brother beats up a friend for showing him a video of his sister camming. Meanwhile, her mother remains in the dark until said scuffle, and when she finally finds out she just looks disappointed, and remains stuck in that same gear until the very last scene of the film. All of these interactions seem completely devoid of context because we learn so little about her family and their motivations - the movie is singularly focused on how Alice feels about things, at the expense of all other characters.

The movie was written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei in order to communicate her experiences, which might help explain the myopia. But this leads to questions about what we’re meant to learn about the world of camming. Is the lesson that online sex work is a worthy industry to be normalized, or that it leads to destructive behavior that can damage someone physically and psychologically? Does camming represent a classic case of oversharing on the web, or does it allow for a safe and playful construction of persona? There are plenty of great movies that raise more questions than they answer, but this movie felt less like another “Ex Machina” and more like a bad episode of “Black Mirror”.

“Cam” is meant to show a woman with agency - Mazzei has said her primary inspiration came from "Whiplash" and "Black Swan". By itself, the idea of sticking a cam model into a biography of an obsessive is a fascinating concept, especially because the preconceptions we have about drummers and ballerinas differ greatly from the ones we have about cam models. There’s a perception that as a cam model performing nude, you’re giving away much more of yourself, and so if Alice can control this vulnerability and utilize it for her personal benefit then she’s reached true agency. She would have mastered not just her craft, but the way others view her body as well.

But this film clearly demonstrates that the successful, obsessive model is not Alice, but rather the completely separated online persona Lola_Lola. The audience loses the effect of seeing their main character train and improve, and loses the opportunity to see her as successful and actually in control. [Spoiler Alert] In the movie’s climax Alice must kill Lola_Lola in the end, which appears to demonstrate that her oversharing persona is no longer her ideal. Yet Alice goes right back to that world by the final scene even after seeing the dangerous effects of camming on her body and her life.

Nudity, for obvious reasons, is sometimes used as a portrayal of complete vulnerability, whether it appears in “Titanic” or “The Danish Girl,” but “Cam” can’t decide whether it buys into this interpretation or not. As our sensibilities evolve and we become more comfortable with accessible naked bodies again, it’s possible we may one day see it as something perfunctory, as part of the job - it’s clear that that’s at least how Alice feels. But if nudity is meant to be just another minor plot element, it sure would be nice if there was an actual plot to go along with it.

Rating: one 🍆 out of five 🍆

Possible Netflix Categories: Softcore Porn, Steamy [Unintentional] Comedies, Sofia Coppola Knock-Offs