Her name is Alice (Madeline Brewer), but her horde of devoted online fans know her as Lola. They court her with chatroom tokens and heart-eyes emoji. They send her nipple tassels in the mail. And they're witness to the alarming events that take place in the taut and utterly compelling new horror movie Cam, on Netflix November 16.
Cam, a movie produced by horror behemoth Blumhouse, is a psychological horror story in the most fundamental sense. While it contains vaguely supernatural elements, the movie's most thrilling moments come in Cam Girl Alice Ackerman's spiral as she realizes she has been copied by some kind of computer virus with a will of its own.
The movie leaves the mechanics of the crime (or hacking? or haunting?) to the imagination. Instead, the supernatural elements are couched in Alice's experiences; we know as much as she does. Since Cam doesn't offer up any concrete explanation, it relies on performances for momentum — and only an actor of Madeline Brewer's caliber could pull a challenge like this off.
In Cam, Brewer essentially plays three characters. She's Alice, an ambitious girl stuck in Arizona using what she has — charm and a camera — to climb up the capitalism ladder. She's Lola, the Cam girl who has special nicknames for each of her most loyal fans. And she's also Lola's clone, an amalgamation created from Lola's past videos that can exist entirely on its own, long past Alice's death. Brewer plays a fourth character in the end, too — but we'll get to that later.
Up until the strangeness begins to occur, Alice had been consumed by her quest to become a "top girl" on the site FreeGirls.Live. Everyone on the site seems to have a strategy for amassing a following. Some of the cam girls paint themselves in glitter; others are into lace and BDSM. Alice's brand is stunts. In each square of her wall calendar, Alice records the "theme" of that day's cam session (some include "date night" and a week devoted to the seven deadly sins). In the first scene, for example, she fakes her own death. The repercussions of the suicide stunt are twofold: She climbs in the ranks to position 53, and she can draw a direct connection between violence and arousal in the hearts of her fans. Yum.
Just as Alice has crossed to spot 50, she's sabotaged by another cam girl named Princess, who instructs her followers to make Lola's spot drop by 10 places. To gain back her position, Alice decides to ride the Vibatron (a knockoff Sybian) in a multi-room studio designed for Cam Girls. The next day, Alice tries logging onto her account. She's blocked. But this is no regular hacking.
Lola's account, you see, is active. She watches herself sitting in a bubble bath, interacting with the chat room. But how could she be in a bubble bath if she was also sitting in her bed in pajamas? Something is up.
Really, though: What's wrong with Alice's account?
After wandering around in confusion for days, Alice finally gets clarity from Tinker (Patch Darragh), a super-fan who moved to Alice's Arizona town. At first, Alice thinks the "other Lola" is a girl who has an uncanny resemblance. But she's not. She's a product of the internet. "I found it just like you. I think it can take anything it can find of you online," Tinker says, during their confrontation. "It's on all of the cam sites."
Tinker had an inkling Lola's account would be copied, though he could offer no answers as to why. "I've watched enough to guess who it'll choose. I don't know what it is or how it'll work," he says. We don't know if the virus is a being of its own, or perhaps a really intelligent software created by a hacker.
How does the virus work?
Think back to the Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back." In that episode, a company offers a service that brings the dead back to life — sort of. It clones a person's body, then implants a personality derived from a person's internet history, from social media activity to Google searches.
After months as a Cam Girl, Lola has accumulated hours-worth of "herself" on the Internet. The virus synthesized that information and created a newer, sleeker, less-human Lola — a Lola designed to perform on the internet, because she's of the internet. Further proof of this: Alice finds Baby Girl (Imani Hakim), who is a copy, quoting one of Lola's old videos, proving that the virus draws from the entire swath of cam girls.
Cam introduces the possibility that the Internet isn't just a place that hosts villains on the deep web. It can produce villains of its own — a new breed of threat entirely.
What happened to Baby Girl?
Hannah Darin is the key to understanding the virus. Hannah, under the username Baby Girl, occupies the number-one spot on the website. Alice often wonders how she does it. This is how: She's a copy.
As Alice discovers through some internet sleuthing, Hannah had died in a car accident at the age of 25. However, her account has continued to prosper. Baby Girl and Lola 2.0 even host a joint video together in a perfect virtual simulacra of Alice's bedroom (creepy). What happened to Baby's account is now happening to Lola's.
Does this mean the top girls are all copies?
That's what the movie seems to imply. Arnold mentions that he had seen other girls be copied by "it." He also says that WinterBear and Sarah, who occupy spots two and three on the charts, were acting weird. Certainly, we know that Hannah — aka Baby Girl, the top Cam Girl —was copied. After Alice's account is taken over, she shoots up to the top of the charts. Likely, none of top girls are longer sentient. They're programs designed to give people exactly what they want.
That's the lingering question, isn't it? One commenter aptly suggested that perhaps FreeGirls.Live is in charge of this virus. By duplicating top performers, the site won't actually have to pay the performers. The website is creating a system of exploitation and disenfranchisement. Alice, for example, goes from making a living on the cam site to being a woman with a story no one believes. She isn't the only one.
How does Alice beat Lola 2.0?
Until the movie's end, nothing that Alice tried actually worked. Not police intervention. Not tech support. Not trying to confront Lola 2.0 directly, because Lola 2.0 doesn't even seem capable of recognizing Alice.
So, Alice uses her own aptitude for Cam Girl-ing to outwit Lola 2.0. Using her Alice in Wonderland themed account, Alice sets up a private chat with Lola 2.0. She sits at her vanity in front of her large TV monitor. People in the chat are freaked out that Lola is speaking to her clone; they think it's another one of her wild stunts.
Alice convinces Lola to play a "monkey see, monkey do" game. The people in the chat room will decide who wins through voting; Lola is a "heart," Alice is represented by a teapot. Lola wins the first round. Then things get crazy. Alice slams her face down on the table in front of her, breaking her nose (barf). Lola 2.0 doesn't go all the way. The chat room members — who, as we saw earlier, love when Lola hurts herself — begin to side with Alice, who clearly is more addled. Alice wins this round.
For her a prize, she asks for her password back. "You gotta follow through. How would your guys ever trust you again if they didn't?" Alice argues. She's right: The guys stop tipping until she gives Alice her password. Alice is finally able to log back into her own account. She deletes the Lola_Lola account.
What's Alice going to do next?
We may not know what the virus is, but we do know one thing: Alice is really good at being a Cam Girl. Even her mom admits it. Alice won't let a virus destroy her dreams. With the help of her hair stylist mom, Alice reinvents herself into EveBot, a new persona entirely. She rocks the new, slightly crooked nose. She's going to climb back to the top — this time, though, she'll know what she's up against. As she assures her mom, if she's "copied" again, she'll just make another account. Soon, perhaps, Alice and her copies will dominate the cam sites.