Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Oh, I’m going to ruin this movie for you. It’s impossible to really discuss “Catfish” without giving away certain revelations in its second half. Not that the film, a doc, contains any complete shocks — you can probably guess the general direction in which it’s headed from reading the festival summary — but it does gain a lot from being allowed to unfold without knowledge of what’s coming. It is, in many ways, about the stories we set out to tell versus the stories we actually end up with. That said, there’s no way to give it address it in a substantive way without going into what that story ends up being. So — fair warning?
There’s a touch of the predatory in even the most well-intentioned of documentary films — you’re taking the raw stuff of other people’s lives and shaping it into the story you see. And there are shifts in that sense of power throughout “Catfish.”
You can see why Ariel Schulman, who co-directed alongside Henry Joost (both also figure in largely on screen), started chronicling the development of his brother Nev‘s online friendship with Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old art prodigy living in upstate Michigan. It’s adorable, it’s a novelty, it’s a Good Story.
And you can see why Nev, a 24-year-old photographer, agrees to it. Abby reached out to him, mailing him a painting of a picture of two dancers he took for a New York paper. It’s flattering and charming — she messages him cute updates on her life (her pet snake dies, but didn’t eat his last meal, and so now she has a pet mouse), and he, in turn, offers her benevolent encouragement.
Soon, Nev is being Facebook friended by Abby’s mom Angela, who tells him how surprised she is that her daughter’s artwork is in serious demand from collectors; then her dad; her brother, who’s in a band; their friends and extended family; and Megan, Abby’ beautiful, virginal half-sister who lives further out of town on a horse farm, who likes music, dancing and, it becomes clear, Nev. They offer a seductive group portrait of what’s almost outsider art, or at least art freed of commodity — sincere, unguarded people who paint and draw and write music and don’t seem to feel the need to be careerist or trumpet their own potential.
Megan and Nev start a flirtation that escalates to texting, chatting and phone calls. They talk about meeting. He notes they’re on the verge of a relationship, albeit one with geographical issues. She sends him mp3s of songs she wrote for him. But did she write them? He accidentally turns up a recording of one he, Ariel and Henry particularly liked, and it turns out to be from the soundtrack of “One Tree Hill.”
In fact, all of the songs she’s sent him are turn out to be just audio tracks from live performance on YouTube. Everything starts to unravel; Nev realizes he’s never actually gotten to talk to Abby, and calls to find the building Angela claims they bought for Abby’s gallery is still vacant. He’s horrified and humiliated and reluctant to continue, but Ariel urges him on, now that a far better story has fallen in their laps.
Nev, Ariel and Henry were following the lead of these online figures, but, armed with different degrees of righteousness and morbid curiosity, they set off for Michigan to confront Megan and Angela and Abby. And what they find is that there was really only ever Angela, a plain, soft-spoken housewife who spends her day taking care of her two severely disabled stepsons, and who’s woven her old dreams and aspirations into a network of social networking sockpuppets, all to keep Nev’s interest.
There really is an Abby, a friendly, normal little girl with no exceptional artistic ambitions. The paintings were all from Angela, who longs to be able to sell her work, and who lied to her husband that Nev commissioned them. There are no collectors, no horse farm, no Megan. There’s just a vulnerable, unexpectedly sympathetic woman, and after a squirmingly uncomfortable first meeting, the boys decide that they last thing they want is an aggressive confrontation — while they want the truth, they don’t want to hurt anyone.
It’s seem strange to say that, given the insane extent of the fiction Angela created, she comes across as more complicated and captivating than the filmmakers do — as, really, the warped heroine — but it’s true. She lied, but she also created insightfully flattering bait for a group of urbane New Yorkers. The film can be intensely uncomfortable to watch at moments, but exploitative edge inherent to the idea of “let’s go confront this crazy lady” is undone by the fact that Angela’s truth puts it to shame.
“Catfish” was filmed on the fly, with cameras sometimes planted on tables or car dashboards, but that haphazardness, and the transparency of the discussions of when and what it’s okay to shoot make sense. The story’s nicely broken up with Google Earth sequences in which we swoop from the Manhattan loft shared by Nev and the filmmakers down to Abby and Angela’s address. It reinforces that it’s become so easy to, say, zoom in on an image of someone’s house, but not really know who lives there, or to learn about someone’s innermost thoughts, but not have any actual idea of what that person’s life is like. In that way, the narrative “Catfish” ends up spinning is one of a sort of sad, unusual love story.
“Catfish” does not yet have U.S. distribution.