Alice Ackerman holds a knife to her throat, her eyes catching the reflection of the comments displayed on her giant computer screen. Anonymous viewers with names like Dragonballs and Ninja Man send tokens, tips, and emojis. “DO IT you worthless whore,” sends Visitor003128. Alice’s eyes dart back and forth while her ratings climb. She slides the knife across her throat, spilling blood onto her jacket and bare chest.
“Cam” is the first feature film from writer and former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and Mazzei’s first high school boyfriend, director Daniel Goldhaber. Mazzei and Goldhaber came up working together — Goldhaber had directed her online porn work. According to Filmmaker Magazine it was Goldhaber’s idea for the intense opening scene that shifted the film’s perspective from nonfiction documentary to genre film.
What happens after this moment is the first of many shocking instances in a psychological thriller that forces audiences to experience their full range of emotions. Lola, Alice Ackerman’s online persona, remains slumped forward in her cam room. Blood drips from her throat to her carpet while members of her chat room send rapid fire comments reacting to her apparent suicide. Suddenly, at the exact moment you start to think, “WTF is happening” Lola pops up, grinning slyly at her admirers.
This little stunt raises her ranking up to #53 from #60; and she marks it on her calendar next to the previous day’s rankings. When Lola (played by Madeline Brewer) signs off she gets a private message from Visitor003218 who reveals himself to be one of her friends and regulars in on the joke — she calls him “Tink”. Soon after she’s messaged by another follower called Barnacle Bob. Bob pays for a private show and Alice is seen stepping into a bath and washing the fake blood from her skin.
“Cam” isn’t the first film to be told from the point of view of the sex worker but it might be the first to cast the role of sex worker as the hero instead of the victim. Classic “hooker with a heart of gold” characters are usually ironic characters who demonstrate virtuous behavior despite their morally incorrect professions. Traditionally, they often learn the error of their ways and turn away from sins of the flesh to commit to a man or a more socially acceptable career.
Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi in the 1995 banger of a film “Showgirls”. A movie about a woman who dreams of starring in a Las Vegas show and finds out the hard way that not everything is what it seems in the Sin City and leaves. Tony Scott’s 1993 crime drama “True Romance” stars Patricia Arquette as a call girl on the run with her man. Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” tells the story of an in-demand escort who charges $2,000 per hour for her time. Then of course there’s “Pretty Woman”. The ultimate rags to riches/tart with a heart story.
There is no shortage of films about “working women” and the men who love them, leave them, or worse. “Cam” isn’t that. Alice Ackerman is part of a new generation of sex workers created from first hand experiences in the field. It’s a horror film where the slutty one doesn’t die first. Alice isn’t ashamed of her work, though she understands the stigmas surrounding sex work and what revealing her profession might do to her family. In the film, she plans on telling her mom once she’s ranked in the top 10.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) passed in 2018. Bringing to light the stories of thousands of sex workers in protest of these new laws, many of whom work as cam models. Magazines published interviews and articles explaining how the new laws would impact the sex work community and the world started to realize sex workers are people too.
In “Cam” Alice (Brewer) is dying to snag the #1 spot on freegirls.live.The film’s sharp intro sets the tone for the impending interactions between Alice and her inevitable fan base of loyal snakes in the grass. High on the winnings of her faux suicide spectacle, Alice decides to celebrate with a “date night” where she eats steak with her hands for her viewers online while wearing a blue corset.
Tokens and emojis flood in as Alice breaks above #50 and douses herself in confetti glitter. Mid-celebration her rankings suddenly plummet. It’s revealed that a rival cam model named Princess, (played by Samantha Robinson of “The Love Witch”), is offering to cam completely nude if viewers will downvote Alice. The unraveling of our hero begins.
Things move from, “this seems like it might get weird, but still turn out alright” to “oh yeah no this is definitely going to be bad because it’s the internet” pretty quickly. Fresh from a night on the Vibra-Tron, a product based on the Sybian, Alice has dropped to #47. When she wakes up the next morning and checks her phone she realizes she’s been locked out of her account. Attempts to change her password don’t work and neither does calling customer service. That’s when Alice notices she’s still online.
A Lulu lookalike stares back at Alice from her giant monitor in a cam room exactly like her own. The bright neon pink walls and matching toy chest are the same. The deep red curtains match Alice’s and the same giant stuffed teddy bear sits plopped in the corner. It’s clear that this movie is about more than identity theft.
A review for Slate Magazine by Inkoo Kang writes, “…though Alice denies that her chosen career has anything to do with a personal sense of female empowerment, the film assumes an unspoken but unmissable feminist consideration of sex work. The disjunct between Alice’s seeming regularness and Lola’s over-the-top performances — sometimes involving blood capsules — is the tip of the iceberg. More fascinating is the sense of safety and control that that webcam-modeling allows — and how illusory that can become when male entitlement gets unleashed from social niceties.”
Alice’s obsession with watching her faux-self drives her to the brink of a nervous breakdown when she watches lookalike Lulu pull another prank for her followers and fake a suicide by shotgun. She calls the police, when they arrive they suggest she stay off the internet. As one officer goes outside to answer a call, the other flirts with Alice and tells her it’s too bad she doesn’t have sex with any of the men who watch her videos.
Ignored by law enforcement — an obvious dig at the frequently ignored reports filed by sex workers — Alice gets back online to hunt for clues. When she checks the profiles of other cam girls who have also lost their online-identities to the glitch, she recognizes Tink as their top follower. She tracks him down at a nearby motel and feigns innocence to convince him to help. This is where virtual meets reality. Online, Tink may have seemed harmless; he paid money for her time, and whenever they engaged she was at a safe distance from him. In real life, Tink represents a trope for the socially-stunted guy who pays for sex and obsesses over the women he watches online.
Alice enters his motel room and realizes Tink is battling some moral demons. His room is adorned with crucifixes and she finds him in the bathroom praying for forgiveness while he masturbates to a video chat with lookalike Lola. Alice tases him and pushes him out of the room. When she sees herself on the screen, reflected in the bathroom mirror she’s finally struck by an idea.
In Alice’s cam world her word is her bond. Her viewers trust her and Alice knows that to challenge fake Lola and win is to prove to them she’s a fake. Alice creates a phony screen name and asks faux-Lola to play Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. Of course, this is a horror film so the tasks aren’t as innocent. Alice slams her face down hard on her vanity, breaking her nose. When faux-Lola tries to repeat the act she can’t, her nose doesn’t break because she isn’t real. The prize for winning the game? Lola’s account information. She surrenders the password allowing Alice to login and delete the account.
You might assume that Alice would learn the error of her ways and seek alternative employment opportunities post cam-career but you’d be wrong. This film doesn’t bend its female lead to the expectations of society. This is a movie where the woman challenges the assumed roles of hero and victim. Alice comes back stronger. She returns to the job she loved. A job she was good at. A job where she played an online character and made a living doing it.
Mazzei wraps up her film with Alice’s enemies slighted, her foes defeated. The antagonist Alice takes down is a glitched version of herself and to destroy it she’s got to use her own line of defenses. Her pride in her job and her unwillingness to give up everything she’s worked for prove to be essential to her success. She fights for her place in the camworld. In the end Alice levels up, unlocking an even more powerful self with new tools at her disposal. The final scene is of Alice in her cam room, blue instead of pink, tugging her long blonde wig into place. Her new name? Evebot. The first woman.
The first time I watched “Cam” it blew me away because of how self aware it is. Mazzei never shies away from the reality of sex work. It’s long hours. It’s not always glamorous. It can be dangerous. The second time I liked it even more. Mazzei’s is a screenplay for sex workers by a sex worker and it sets a new standard for the way we think about the world’s oldest profession.