Monday, October 4, 2010

Movie Review: Catfish

Catfish *** ½
Directed by:
Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.

Spoiler Warning: The filmmakers of Catfish really do not want you to know the secrets of the film before you see the film itself, and this is something I concur with - because I’m not sure the film would be as effective if you know too much about it. You can probably read the first four paragraphs of this review and not have too much spoiled for you, but if you are planning on seeing the film, then I would stop reading at the end of paragraph four - or perhaps even at the end of this warning - and come back after you’ve seen the film. But because it really is the surprise in the third act that makes the movie as good as it is, I don’t think I can write a proper review without revealing the twist. So once again, stop reading if you want to preserve the experience of seeing it for yourself. Consider yourself warned.

Facebook has allowed people who never would have met in the past to find each other and bond. This sounds like a good thing - and it can be - but the problem is that meeting people on facebook, or any other social website, still allows a degree of anonymity. People would never think of saying the things they say online in person, but because all it is typing, they feel more confident online - and more prone to lying.

The new documentary Catfish tells the story of Nev, a freelance photography who has one of his photos published in the New York Post. A few months later he receives a painting of that photo - and is told that it is done by an 8 year old. He starts corresponding with the girl, her mother and her older sister. Hat starts out as a friendship between him and the older sister turns into something more. They start flirting with each other online and via text message, and even start talking on the phone. But every time Nev tries to figure out a time and place where they can actually meet in person, there are excuses. And then he discovers that some of the songs she has sent him aren’t really her singing. And this makes him dig a little deeper, and discover more and more inconsistencies with reality between what she has told him, and what he knows to be true. He, and his two friends - the directors of the film - eventually decide to find out the truth they are simply going to have to travel to her house for an unexpected visit. And that, of course, when things get truly weird.

A few people have questioned the veracity of this documentary, but since as far as I can tell no one has been able to prove they faked anything, and because what I saw when I watched the film struck me as legitimate, I have a tendency to believe that its true. If they did fake it all, well then they did a much better job than Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck did in I’m Still Here. As to why the filmmakers decided to start filming all these interactions when they and Nev still took everything that was being said to them at face value, I really don’t have trouble believing it. After all, isn’t the whole concept of Facebook that will all believe that everyone else is interested in even the tiniest details of our lives?

The first act of the movie is interesting because it seems so universal - two people meeting each other online and seemingly share a deep connection. At this point, we have all seen too many movies, too many TV reports about real life connections between people online where one person turns out not to be the person they have made themselves out to be, so we have an uneasy feeling about what will happen. The second act, when Nev and the filmmakers start digging into everything that he has been told, and piecing together all the lies feels inevitable. And yet nothing really prepares us for the final act of the film - which is something that I didn’t really see coming.

Once again, I would advise you to stop reading here if you don’t want to know the secret of the film. Final warning,
When the filmmakers and Nev arrive at the address they are given for this family - in upstate Michigan (they are from New York), they meet who is undoubtedly the most fascinating character in the movie. This is Angela, the mother of Abby, the supposed 8 year old art prodigy, and Megan, the older sister Nev has been flirting with for months on end. She looks nothing like her picture, and Abby doesn’t seem to know too much about Nev, or painting for that matter. Her husband looks different that normal as well, and she has two seriously disabled stepsons, that for some reason no one ever mentioned. When she tells Nev that Megan isn’t home, because she lives upstate at a farm, we already know this is a lie - the farm, was the filmmakers first star, and they find it empty.

Of course it turns out that everyone Nev has been communicating with is all Angela. She does all the paintings, she has been talking, testing and flirting with Nev as her daughter Megan - who does appear to actually exist, although we never find out anything verifiable about her. Angela created unique Facebook profiles for herself, Megan, her other son Alex (who is completely fake) and a host of friends - all to try and fool Nev into thinking they are real.

Angela is a fascinating person, because there doesn’t seem to be a malicious bone in her body. Yes, she was playing a trick on Nev, but she didn’t do it to be mean, but to make up for own life - in which she is somewhat miserable. In Nev, she found someone she could talk to, and kind of be herself - which of course is strange since she is lying constantly. But we simply feel sorry for her, not angry. Not even Nev can bring himself to be angry. He just wants to know why - and that is perhaps the only thing Angela cannot accurately explain to him.

Catfish is a fascinating documentary - about an issue that even 10 years ago wouldn’t have existed. I have no idea how it will play if you know the secret of the film - or on a second viewing for that matter - but the film drew me in, and held my attention - and unlike most films, it gets better, more complex, more interesting as it goes along. If it turns out the film is a hoax, than bravo to the filmmakers. They had been fooled. Because Catfish feels all too real.

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