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Cam has the brilliant audacity to argue that the internet isn’t about connecting people

Netflix’s slick, saucy new horror noir understands the existential terror of losing your carefully curated fictional internet persona.

Netflix

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Cam

The premise: Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale) delivers a stellar performance as Alice, an internet camgirl whose carefully controlled life is demolished overnight after a mysterious doppelgänger steals her identity.

What it’s about: IRL, Alice is a sweet, obedient daughter who’s tight-lipped about the oddly lucrative internet job that pays for her nice apartment and her $5,000 pieces of furniture. But we all know better, and online, she’s “Lola,” an ambitious sex worker whose dedication to reaching the top tier on her camgirl website is matched only by her determination to maintain firm control over her career.

In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’s Vivian controls who, what, when, and how much. Online, Alice’s tippers dictate most of those details, but their interactions remain virtual. In most versions of this cautionary tale, that would be the good, safe, relieving aspect of Alice’s business — but in this movie, it’s her inability to bridge the virtual gap and connect on a real-life level with most of her customers that threatens to become the real horror show.

Plenty of internet chat movies — Searching is the most recent high-profile example — have fixated on what are now well-trodden tropes in the digital age: questions of how real and authentic our connections to each other can be, and how fully we can ever know anyone, when we all have the ability to craft a different life online. Internet horror movies tend to go one step further, asking whether any amount of separation between real and virtual identities is enough to protect us from dangerous internet predators, or whether the internet inevitably facilitates untold computer-generated perils previously unknown to us.

Cam, which has spent the year earning raves on the festival circuit, sidesteps all these moral questions for a much more nihilistically fun variant: What tricks can the internet play on us if authenticity and intimacy were never the goals of using the internet to begin with?

In working to make her website’s top 10 camgirls list, Alice is business-savvy and motivated, and clearly not at risk of blurring lines between her personal life and her work. However, when she finds herself locked out of her account and replaced by a double who seems more skilled at being Alice than Alice herself, she has a completely relatable meltdown — one that has less to do with the mind games she’s being subjected to than with the loss of both her livelihood and her brush with internet fame. We feel how bereft she is over being cut off from her virtual life, and we weep with every increasingly distraught, ineffective call to customer support.

Cam is a sympathetic, saucy thriller, by turns lush and lurid, that pulls us down the web’s darker corridors — to question what lurks there, sure, but also to remind us that we’ve all spent time in those darker corners and there’s a reason we like them. Director Daniel Goldhaber turns in a feature debut that’s a little bit noir, a little bit glam, and forgivably, appropriately self-obsessed. Ultimately as cheeky as it is scary, Cam is a seduction disguised as a sermon, and it’s all the better for it.

Critical consensus: Critics have been effusive in praising Cam, which currently has a 96 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In the words of IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “Finally, someone has made a film about the existential horror of getting locked out of your account, and the horror is all too real.”

Where to watch: Cam is streaming on Netflix beginning November 16, with a same-day limited theatrical run in the US.