(2010)2.5Josh RalskeIt seems like it's getting harder and harder to tell documentary from fiction these days. Catfish fits into an increasingly popular genre of filmmaking, the "purported documentary." Certainly, much of what appears onscreen seems to have been filmed as it happened, but how much of a hand the filmmakers had in making those events occur is very much open to question. At the very least, one suspects, they could more quickly have ascertained the truth about the situation they found themselves in, but decided it would make for a more dramatic movie to keep themselves in the dark as long as possible.
Co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost begin their movie as New York photographer Nev Schulman, Ariel's brother, receives a painting of one of his photos in the mail from a young fan in Michigan named Abby. Soon, Nev friends the eight-year-old on Facebook, and eventually "meets" Abby's family online, including mom Angela and Abby's beautiful stepsister, Megan. They appear to be a multi-talented family. Beyond Abby's painting, Angela and Megan are also musicians. Nev is increasingly drawn to Megan, and Ariel and Henry shoot him as he flirts with Megan on Facebook, and eventually speaks to her on the phone. Other friends and family members also become a part of Nev's extended Facebook community. This goes on for several months, when the filmmaking trio plans a business trip to Colorado, which Nev sees as an opportunity for him to meet Megan. But when Nev learns that Megan and Angela may not have written and/or performed some of the songs they've uploaded onto Facebook, he begins to get suspicious. Ariel, Henry, and Nev decide to drop in on Abby's family unannounced, and they make some unexpected discoveries.
Catfish is a fairly engrossing experience, driven by Nev's engaging if somewhat callow personality (he's an actor, whatever he may claim), and by a subject matter and presentation that authentically evoke contemporary notions of human interaction and privacy (though the heavy reliance on Facebook, Google Maps, and GPS does make the thing feel like one long commercial at times). The movie's titular metaphor even has a surprising amount of resonance.
Promotion for Catfish has focused on the shocking nature of those discoveries, but in the broader sense, there's nothing particularly shocking, or even much unexpected, about what the filmmakers find in Michigan. There are some very tense moments in Catfish, as they explore Megan's property in the middle of the night, and then visit Abby's house the next day, but all the buildup -- both in the promotional materials and within the movie itself -- isn't justified by the payoff. The truth is, we've all heard stories like this one before. It's strange and sad, and it's even kind of fascinating, but it's nothing new. Without giving away too much, anyone who's used any kind of social website or chat room in the past decade or so knows that people often misrepresent themselves -- sometimes elaborately so.
Aside from the anticlimactic nature of Catfish's revelations, this brings up nagging questions about how these three smart, tech-savvy New York hipsters could have been so easily misled. It certainly seems possible that they realized early on that Abby and her family were not what they seemed, and played along because it would make for a more interesting movie. This raises some thorny ethical issues, because if they did encourage the ruse, then the filmmakers are the cynical manipulators, regardless of what they found on their journey, or how much compassion they tried to evince in the face of that discovery. The viewer may well end up wondering just who is being taken for a fool.
Love and identity become twisted across the lines of the Internet in this documentary from filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Nev Schulman is a photographer who one day received a surprising e-mail message -- Abby, an eight-year-old girl in Michigan, had seen his picture in a newspaper and wanted permission to paint a portrait from it. Nev gave his OK, and when he was given a copy of the painting, he was struck by how good it was, assuming that the girl was either a genius or a fraud. Nev tried to contact Abby's family, and somehow ended up in contact with Megan, Abby's sexy 19-year-old sister. As Nev fell into an increasingly complicated on-line relationship with Megan, he decided it was time to meet her in person, but when he traveled to Michigan and tracked her down, Nev learned that Abby and Megan's family were not at all what he expected them to be. Ariel Schulman, Nev's brother, began filming his brother's adventures from his first contact with Abby, and in Catfish he and Henry Joost tell this strange story from beginning to end. Catfish received its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.