Cam is a Tech Thriller That Gets It Right

Writer Isa Mazzei’s Twitter bio reads “I write about sex, women, and things that make people uncomfortable.” That’s certainly a mantra for Cam, the new boundary-pushing Netflix tech thriller in the vein of Black Mirror, starring Madeline Brewer and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Cam’s protagonist, Alice, is a cam girl, or an online sex worker who receives revenue from “tips” on a fictional website called FreeGirlsLive, which has many real life analogs available at a quick Google search. Part of the impulse behind Mazzei, a former cam girl herself, writing a horror film about sex workers was the way the horror industry itself portrays sex workers. Think American Psycho, where sex workers are mutilated and tortured by the protagonist as sport, or Very Bad Things, wherein the entire premise of the movie is that sex worker’s deaths are a point of comedy.

Mazzei and Goldhaber wanted to make a film in the vein of Whiplash or Black Swan and tell the story of a character whose craft consumes them in horrific ways, and Alice’s craft just happens to be sex work. The actual plot of Cam follows Alice’s online identity, “Lola,” manifesting without her – her account broadcasts cam shows of a completely indistinguishable image of her without her actually performing any of the actions, and as the image of Lola outside of her control stretches the boundaries more and more, Alice becomes increasingly more frantic about regaining control of her digital identity. Mazzei and Goldhaber followed three rules in writing the screenplay: Nothing bad happens to Alice because of her career as a sex worker or her decision to engage in sex work, the narrative is told completely in Alice's perspective, and Alice is never simply a patronized victim or a sexualized femme fatale.

Madeline Brewer in Cam. Image courtesy of Netflix. 

Sex work is easily the most stigmatized career out there, and Cam presents Alice’s job as just that: Her job. It’s part of her day-to-day life. She has a mother and a brother, and the audience is forced to see her job and her existence through her own eyes. She is not the nameless victim. Mazzei remarked that often people would remark “But you’re so normal” when they heard about her career. “Even some of my viewers would say things like that to me. They would try to save me from the thing they were consuming, which is entirely problematic,” Mazzei said in an interview with Paper. Despite the fact that Cam is a horror movie about sex work, the horror itself is not the concept of sex work but the way sex work manifests online and the way the relationship with the viewer through a cam girl career has repercussions for Alice’s perception of herself. Yet this is not unique to the cam girl line of work: “First and foremost this is a movie about digital identity, and that is relatable to anyone that has an online presence. What we're relating to is this loss of agency and this loss of control over our digital personas, and I think we all can relate to that,” Mazzei said. It pushes boundaries, subverts expectation, and forces the viewer to question their own security in their identity and existing prejudices, which is what all good horror should do.

Cam is another film to add to the pantheon of innovative thriller and horror media including Get Out and Black Mirror, which explore how insidious already existing social conventions play out in a genre where the rules of reality can be bent and twisted. With a soundtrack of ‘90s inspired dream pop and plush violet lighting out of Suspiria or The Love Witch, Cam is a must-watch. It's available for streaming on Netflix.