2010, PG-13, 86 min. Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 17, 2010
“Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” blares the ad campaign, dangling viewers on hooks like the proverbial catfish. Hoping to reel us in with the promise of mysteries untold, the promoters realize that the movie’s big reveal is the main thing Catfish has going for it. Otherwise, the film is little more than a sour cautionary tale about the way the new social media can develop into stagnant reflecting pools clogged with the undigested remnants of our hopes, dreams, and ambitions. After premiering to huge acclaim in the Documentary Spotlight section at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Catfish is now billing itself as a “reality thriller.” Whether the change of focus is due to the damper the word “documentary” generally casts over the box office or because of questions that have arisen regarding the film’s veracity is unknown. Personally, I think there are several disingenuous aspects to this movie, although Catfish is, nevertheless, a timely cultural landmark in our popular acknowledgment of the ways in which social media have invaded and altered our lives. Catfish is the creation of Joost and brothers Ariel and Nev Schulman, filmmakers and dance photographers who are in business together in New York City. The film begins when handsome Nev, in his mid-20s, is contacted through Facebook and thereafter receives a painting based on one of his published dance photographs. The painting is by 8-year-old Abby Pierce, an apparent art prodigy in upstate Michigan, and is sent by her mother, Angela. Quickly, a relationship develops between Nev and this family, and he grows infatuated with Abby’s older sister, Megan, a dancer and singer with whom he talks with on the phone and texts regularly. Egged on by his brother and Joost, Nev reluctantly agrees to permit this modern-day friendship and love affair to be recorded on film. Months pass before anything occurs that arouses the filmmakers’ suspicions, though the point at which the original decision to shoot the film is made is unclear to me. Certain scenes definitely have the feel of re-creations, and I find it curious that these tech-savvy city slickers never Googled the child prodigy and believed everything they read on Facebook. “They didn’t fool me,” says Nev in his own defense. “They just told me things I chose not to question.” Ultimately, in this movie the truth never sets anyone free, and despite the filmmakers’ stated intentions to not humiliate Nev’s new Facebook friends, I’m not convinced they have achieved their stated goals. Catfish provides lots of material to spark passionate post-screening discussions, and I’m always in favor of movies that can spur deeper conversation. And the film is never less than absorbing to watch. However, in the end, I think Catfish lives up to its namesake’s reputation as a bottom-feeder. (See "Double-Faced," Sept. 17, for an interview with the filmmakers.)