Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Warning: spoilers ahead. New York-based dance photographer Yaniv (Nev) Schulman starts a seemingly innocuous online friendship with Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old prodigy from Michigan who makes paintings out of his photos. It’s a sorta business relationship (they share proceeds from sales of the paintings) blessed by Abby’s mother Angela, a beautiful (at least Nev thinks she’s beautiful, based on a painting by Abby) matriarch who coolly keeps behind the scenes. Pretty soon, Nev finds himself immersed in Abby’s attractive family, counted as a Facebook friend in the family’s social network. Enter Megan, Abby’s gorgeous nineteen-year-old half-sister. She’s a winsome blonde beauty, and it’s a no-brainer from a narrative standpoint that 24-year-old Nev soon strikes up a romantic online relationship with her. Everything seems so fairy-tale; this story’s Prince Charming seems destined to find the love of his life in Megan, with a wholesome Midwestern family to go along with the prize. But things soon begin to unravel when, after a bit of googling and YouTubing, Nev discovers a lie that turns out to be only one of many in an elaborate hoax.
This, folks, is a documentary. But it plays out like enviably good fiction. You may have by now heard of the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the film, given how so narratively smooth it is. I personally don’t really care that much about how true the story is (don’t even get me started on the James Frey hooha from years back). But even if the whole deal were fabricated (which would be rather fitting: An elaborate hoax within an elaborate hoax), it would just mean directors Ariel Schulman (Nev’s brother) and Henry Joost are some pretty damn good storytellers. One man’s manipulation is another man’s good story, ha ha. Bottom line is, the film is engaging.
Part of the story’s allure is the “characters” (if I can call them that). Nev (who for some reason initially reminded me of a more likable Evan Lysacek) is the perfect “lead.” Our somewhat hirsute and at one point cutely retainered hero is undeniably attractive and brimming with charm. It’s understandable how Angela, the culprit behind the hoax, could have fallen in love with him. Though I know I am not meant to view him as I would an actor, the climax of the film–the confrontation between Nev and Angela–is Nev’s shining moment. His eyes, as Angela observes, belie his soul, heartbroken over an illusion of love. You can’t help but feel for the guy.
But there’s also a certain humanity in the way Angela is depicted by the guys (that is, Joost and Schulman; at one point, Joost refers to Angela’s sham in this way: “It’s not malicious. It’s just sad”). Despite the deception and the overwrought machinations of her mind, your heart equally breaks for her need to sustain the lie. There’s a symmetry to the fact that she, the woman with broken dreams of once being a dancer, seeks out a dance photographer. As a way to compensate for her personal emotional loss, to create a story for herself better than the frumpy reality she’d had to settle into. Not much seems to be going on in Ipsheming, Michigan, and though I don’t condone her acts, I can understand them (a credit to the filmmakers). I must admit, it’s definitely much more narratively intriguing to have the reveal with Angela the resourceful pathological liar living out a multiple personality disorder of sorts via Facebook (“fragments of myself,” as she refers to them), over a potentially sappy happy ending in which the guy (Nev) simply gets the girl (Megan). Angela was definitely quite a catch, so to speak, for the filmmakers, as the catfish (in her breezily naive husband Vince’s anecdote) who keeps everyone–Nev included–on their toes. (By the way, I also liked the way the film juxtaposes the beautiful and the well, “real,” I suppose, through Nev and Angela. Nev and the guys, along with Angela’s concocted family, are hip and beautiful; while Angela and her real family are at the least plain. Two worlds that never usually meet end up colliding in this story).
The film also plays well, unwittingly or not, on the idea of representation. As the philosophical argument goes, people, when filtered through a lens (or whatever), are really presenting a different version of themselves–a “representation” of themselves. So, unstaged or not, whatever “reality” we are viewing really isn’t all that real. And I think the key to enjoying this film is being at one with this idea. To notice the resonance of the “represented” (photoshopped) image of Nev with Megan lasso tooled beside him; Megan’s plagiarized recordings; and even the very idea of Abby painting Nev’s photos (themselves representations).
I also liked the tech savvy element of the film, i.e. the use of Google Maps’s street view, Facebook, YouTube, and texting, to show just how so overexposed we all are yet so concealed enough as to be able to scam viewers of our online selves. This is the new paradigm we have to get used to now, and the Schulmans and Joost have presented a lovely and heartbreaking film depicting this new reality.
“Catfish” was released on DVD yesterday, and it’s a gem you just have to watch now if you haven’t already. Fiction or not, it is one of the best films of the past year.