DVD Review: A well-crafted, engrossing “mystery” documentary about our new lives (and lies) online, Catfish deftly sifts through layers of reality—a theme further underscored by questions about the authenticity of the film itself.
Directed by New York filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Rel”), Catfish follows Rel’s brother Yaniv (“Nev”) as he’s drawn into an emotionally complicated online relationship with a family in Michigan.
At first Nev is impressed by a series of paintings done by young Abby, an eight-year-old art prodigy. He then becomes Facebook friends with Abby’s mother Angela, and eventually slips into a hot and heavy online romantic flirtation with Abby’s older sister Megan. All this plays out via Facebook pictures and status updates, online IM chats, and phone and voice conversations.
Nev is an aggressively self-assured, smugly handsome young hipster with a Tom Cruise aww-shucks grin. He plays to his brother’s camera perfectly, pretending to sometimes resent the intrusion, but like all reality-show stars, loving the attention.
Eventually his online relationship with the older sister Meg heats up, and so he and his brother and their friend Henry Joost make plans to meet her. But rising suspicions about Meg’s veracity lead them to pay a surprise visit to her family in Michigan.
It’s not giving much away to let slip that Abby, Meg, and Angela aren’t exactly what or who they portrayed themselves as. But the primary strength of the documentary is in its second half as we see who’s really on the other side of that Facebook page: A real family with real human issues, dreams, weaknesses and loneliness. Rather than “scary” or a “freak show,” the Michigan portions of the film are absolutely riveting, touching, and—hopefully—honest, and they make Catfish well worth seeing.
Catfish was marketed in theaters last fall as a sort of Paranormal Activity/Blair Witch thriller in which young, good-looking filmmakers are drawn into something dark and deadly. When I was home for the holidays, my teenage niece wanted to watch The Social Network. Her young friend refused, saying it looked “too scary.”
It took us all a while to figure out what she was talking about—Jesse Eisenberg’s too scary? Turns out she was confusing it with Catfish, which she’d seen TV ads for making it look like a “Facebook horror film.” It’s not that. But what Catfish is remains a tricky question to answer.
The problem is that since its premiere at Sundance a year ago, there have been constant questions raised about how much of Catfish is real. Watching it, especially a second time, you can’t shake the feeling that much of Nev, Rel and Henry’s scenes have a slick, self-aware and carefully planned authenticity—like they’re being staged to feel real.
Some are suggesting that the brothers’ initial contact and connection with Abby’s family may be genuine, as is their visit to Michigan, but that the filmmakers and their star player always suspected things were not what they seemed and they concocted parts of the documentary to play up their slow path to discovery, to make it more dramatic and mysterious.
If so, that makes the overall arc of the film dishonest, but still leaves viewers with a fascinating, realistic center—the Michigan family—and adds even more layers to the themes the movie raises about reality and deception. In an age where it’s commonly accepted that TV “reality” shows are mostly scripted and contestants are constantly fed “lines” to say, it’s worrisome to see that sort of “oh well, if it makes the story better, do it” fakery sneak into feature documentaries.
(Catfish is different from the excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which the very subject of performance art and hoaxes is addressed, or I’m Still Here in which Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix set out to pull off a giant Jackass-style gag.)
Some of the questions about Catfish could be resolved in court. The filmmakers used a piece of copyrighted music in the movie, which was okay under “fair use”… if the film is a documentary. But if it turns out part—or even all—of Catfish was staged, then they’ll have to pay royalties for the use of the song. Which means at some point we may see Rel, Henry and Nev testifying under oath as to the verisimilitude of their film.
If it turns out everything in the film—including Abby’s family—was at best coached or at worst completely faked, then we have to ask ourselves, does that undermine or further enhance what it says about our new world of online emotional connections? Either way, the Internet and Facebook didn’t create human duplicity, deception, and desperate self-delusion. Like so many things, they just made them that much easier to indulge.