Ariel Schulman's and Henry Joost's Catfish is a cautionary documentary about online relationships, and the perils of communicating with arty types from New York with video cameras. I could tell you the ballyhooed twist and, as Roger Ebert said about Inception, it still could not spoil the film. But I still won't; I'm going to try to talk around it for nine paragraphs.
The famous line from The Usual Suspects says that the "greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." The greatest trick Catfish may pull is to convince you that it doesn't exist.
But the film this one reminded me of the most, okay, along with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, is Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, about young artist Marla Olmstead and suspicions that her work might not be everything it's represented to be. If you watched all three movies three times in a row and then immediately wrote a screenplay, you'd probably come up with something like Catfish. You still might decide to go a different way than Catfish does.
I'm hinting around about twist endings and issues of veracity, social relations, public relations, online relations, beauty, attraction and youth, and that's a pretty good listing of what Catfish is all about. If you like mysteries and are observant, you may watch and find clues to this or that about the actual veracity of the film's claims to be a documentary, to sway you either way, but for me, it worked. I still am not sure what to think about the question, or if it matters. Going in, I felt differently. Is this the mark of a great film, or a great con? Definitely.
The film concerns a New York photographer, Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, who has a photo published in the New York Sun. He is contacted by a young girl on Facebook who wants to render it as a painting. This is welcome, and interesting, and soon she's painting more of his work, some on her own and some at his request. Proper social etiquette follows, with contacts with the girl's family, including her mother, Angela, father and older sister Megan, with whom Nev develops a convincing and relatively steamy online and telephone romance.
But some things Megan says seem to test credibility, raising questions about the whole family and Nev's budding friendship with them all. (Here, and throughout the film, there is great music, both in the narrative and in Mark Mothersbaugh's score.) Attempts to meet with any family members and verify any details meet with little success.
What would you do? In the film, they keep filming and moving forward. But just the ideas of caution and sensibility which would run through anybody's head at this point begin to create suspense, excitement, even a bit of dread. What could the secret be? How elaborate could this con be, if it's a con, and to what end? The film is rated PG-13, so one can reasonably infer beforehand that the movie is not Hostel nor even quite The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn. But where's the line going to be drawn?
Some may find the answers unsatisfactory, or practically nonexistent. Some might call it predictable, or lackluster. But it's handled pretty meticulously, and touches on the issues raised in a deeper way than some films which rely in some part--for marketing, or dramatic purposes, or both--on a real-life mystery, an impenetrable curio or a cheap stunt. Like the recent, and somewhat similar The Last Exorcism, I think Catfish may prestidigitate a bit too much, though not quite as far as The Last Exorcism. And the lead "performance" of Catfish doesn't really hold a candle to Patrick Fabian's in The Last Exorcism, but that doesn't hurt too much.
Catfish is compelling, but compelling what? I decided it's a compelling ad for art, and a bit more. Don't keep reading reviews, go see it if it seems interesting. Heck, even if you think you've had it spoiled for you in advance, try it and you might see you really haven't. It's very interesting. It's a remarkable and promising first film, fun, suspenseful, and smart. I got hooked.
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