Wild concept, Brewer’s daring performance make ‘Cam’ a surprisingly decent parable (Movie review)

A lot of movies could benefit from a viewer going in with no knowledge of what they’re about to see, but in the age of previews giving away everything, it’s hard to find an experience like that. Streaming services might be bringing it back though: A synopsis and a still image look intriguing, the service recommends it to you based on your viewing habits, it gets good ratings from others … so maybe you’ll give it a shot. Netflix’s “Cam” benefits from the Mystery Mine Ride approach.

Madeline Brewer, best known for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” stars as a softcore web porn star – real name Alice, stage name Lola. At first, “Cam” is a milder riff on that moment in “Idiocracy” where we see TV has devolved into raw, rote stimulation from a bombardment of sex and/or violence. Lola performs in front of her webcam and gets rated by her “room” of viewers; her goal is to crack the top 50 and keep climbing in the rankings. She gets tipped with virtual tokens that can be cashed in for real-world bucks.

Refreshingly unlike the “Unfriended” films, the computer screen isn’t the only thing we see. Director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei wisely pepper in Lola’s non-screen life, too, allowing viewers to see the contrast. Or the lack of contrast, as it were. When she’s not putting on “shows” for her “room,” she’s planning the next show or getting her hair, makeup or wardrobe in place. On one hand, it seems like she’s making disgustingly easy money; on the other hand, this is her 24/7 vocation, so it’s hard to argue that she’s not working for it or that she isn’t producing an in-demand product.

Brewer is asked to carry “Cam,” a tall order for a young actress, but she’s up to the challenge. By her own design, Lola is a cold, blank slate. But when bad stuff starts to happen, well, she gets a personality, even if she’s never truly likeable. The film could’ve benefited from meatier supporting characters, though. Lola’s mom (Melora Walters) is interestingly, if weirdly, OK with how her daughter is earning a living, seeing it as a form of female empowerment. Her teenage brother (Devin Druid) is impressed with Lola’s success but doesn’t know the specifics of what she does – although his friends certainly do.

A SPOILER WARNING is needed here because to describe the plot of “Cam” is to spoil the plot.

“Cam” essentially becomes a “Twilight Zone” or — to use a modern reference – “Black Mirror” episode (but, as noted, it’s best if we don’t know that going in). A girl who looks exactly like Lola steals her account, and therefore her ranking, tokens, fans … and in a way that goes beyond metaphor, her identity. When Lola contacts her web host to set things straight, she gets caught in a bureaucratic loop. The police are no help, telling her to stay away from sites like that. Likewise with her fellow working girls: They think it’s weird that an exact double has taken over her identity, but they can’t be bothered to help her. Although it’s from Blumhouse, “Cam” isn’t precisely a horror film, but Lola’s plight cribs from mundane horrors, and her increasing isolation has a low-grade nightmare quality.

“Cam” drives home the fact of lonely men living through their online lives. When Lola does something to please her “room” of fans, we see the thread fly by, filled with alert pings and emoticons; this is “Idiocracy” not as a joke or a warning, but as current reality. The second most notable character is Tinker (Patch Darragh), one of Lola’s fans who gets along with her in the virtual world and is sweaty and awkward in reality. As with Lola’s family, Tinker is a missed opportunity to develop a supporting character; he remains a stereotype. Tinker does function as a wiggy audience surrogate, though: He gets off on watching Lola, and honestly, isn’t that what we’re doing too? (At least we aren’t specifically paying for it, though; “Cam” came with our subscription.)

Keeping us from feeling like we’ve stumbled into the weird part of Netflix, “Cam” is propelled by its “How the heck is this gonna be explained?” quality. This is one of those films that feels less like reality by the end than it does at the beginning – but not in a bad way. Lola’s twin, it turns out, is an accidental (or perhaps malicious) digital creation, and that leads us to the story’s creepy moral: If your life is primarily fake, that fake life might become the only reality.

As smart as the script is, and as daring as Brewer’s dual turn is, “Cam” has only that one central point to make, and it doesn’t rise above low-budget calling card to become something more substantial. It’s driven by its sci-fi concept and barely has time for characters. It’s worth throwing a few tokens at, though.

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