Thursday, October 7, 2010

Status Update: CATFISH

Catfish is like one of those Magic Eye pictures that require you to stare at a meaningless pattern until the real picture hidden within pops out. The film opens with a lengthy introduction to Nev Schulman, a professional photographer living in New York City. One day he gets a message from a little girl in Michigan who asks for permission to paint one of his published pictures. He agrees and a few days later he receives a painting in the mail. He soon strikes up an online friendship with the girl, her mother, her father, her brother, and her stepsister. He calls them the Facebook family, since that’s the only way he knows them.

The stepsister is a gorgeous dancer, an animal-lover, a talented singer, and an artist. He starts an online flirtation with her. She has a crush on him. Does it develop into a romance? You could say that. Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, and their colleague Henry Joost decide to film this developing relationship, thinking that it will make a good documentary.

If the film had continued along their original idea, this would be a terrible movie. As it is, the first half of the film is of mild interest. The three twenty-something guys are more or less watchable. After all, they’re constantly smiling. The concept of getting in touch with complete strangers and developing relationships with them has some soft appeal and is adequately presented. This is material that would make a perfectly likable human-interest story that would take up all of ten minutes on the nightly news.

As fate would have it, the guys lucked into having great material for a documentary when they decided to drive to Michigan and meet these people in person. It’s a shame that the advertising campaign for Catfish prepares the audience for a thriller with a secret. True, the film is best seen without any knowledge of the second half, but it’s not scary or frightening. This is no snuff film or sideshow freakout. This is, above all, a study in empathy. The surprise is not shocking, nor is it even totally surprising. People on the Internet are not always honest in representing their identities? I, for one, am not taken aback by that concept.

What they find is tenderly depicted with great sympathy for the real people involved. What these guys discover upon meeting the flesh-and-blood versions of the profile pictures goes much deeper than merely reconciling the truth with what they expected. This is not a movie about three New Yorkers who go to rural Michigan and feel betrayed. It’s better than that.

There’s little condescension to be found in the film’s second half. The directors wisely present the “secret” with sympathy and care, making the film less about what they find than about whom they find. What makes these people do what they do and say what they say? What is the nature of art and reality, fiction and fantasy? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and the filmmakers don’t try to answer them. Instead, they ask them in compelling ways. While the first half errs on the side of navel-gazing, the second half is memorable and affecting.

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