If you’ve been swimming in the film pond during 2010, you might have heard of a film called Catfish, which was a Sundance sensation at the beginning of last year. Part of the buzz stemmed from the film’s black-ops secrecy; its tagline (see right) told you not to “let anyone tell you what it is.” Maybe it doesn’t deserve such secrecy, but what they’ve kept under wraps is a fascinating look at relationships in the 21st century.
Nev Schulman is a photographer whose work catches the eye of eight year old Abby Pierce. After seeing a photo Schulman took of ballet dancers, Abby sends him a painted recreation of his photo, which leads to a pen pal relationship between the respective artists. Over a period of eight months and several paintings, Nev begins to get to know Abby’s family from her mother Angela to Abby’s flirtatious sister Megan. From there things get a bit complicated…
The bulk of what makes Catfish fascinating strays into spoiler territory, so let me stop here. If you liked I’m Still Here or Exit Through the Gift Shop, two films I have strongly recommended, go rent Catfish. Do not read any further, just watch it. For the rest – those who have seen the film, are looking for some conversation, and have all the right travel documents – here we go.
Considering two major factors, that A) The filmmakers and anyone discussing the movie went to great lengths to protect major plot points, and B) the film was distributed by Rogue Pictures (most famous for their horror/”low brow” genre films), the whole time I was waiting for Abby’s family to be wielding chainsaws and worshiping chupacabras. Often when a film is hiding something, it’s some negative twist that causes everything to go, as they say in the UK, “tits up” (Darth Vader being Luke’s father, Bruce Willis being a ghost, etc.). Even Nev’s smile and charm screams “Decapitated Student #1.” Why else would Rogue be involved or such secrecy required?
This expectation ratchets up the tension when Nev, his filmmaking brother Rel, and friend Henry Joost drive out to Michigan to find the Pierce family. As they approach Megan’s farm in the middle of the night, the atmosphere is thrumming with apprehension. Any moment that man with the chainsaw is going to come around the corner…
In reality the truth is much more mundane. Abby’s mother Angela is the one who has been doing the paintings, talking to Nev as Megan, and maintaining the facebook statuses of over a half-dozen people as evidence of her fabricated world. Considering the first thirty minutes of the film includes Nev interacting with the Pierce clan solely through cell phone calls, texts, e-mails, and packages, you’re not surprised there is fraud afoot. When the reveal comes it isn’t a huge shock.
What is a shock is discovering who Angela really is, or rather, who she chooses to be at any given moment. When she comes clean, gets caught in blatant lies, or states half-truths, they glide seamlessly into her home life, wherein she’s caring for two mentally handicapped boys who would literally die if she were not around. It’s obviously not easy living her real life, so the fantasy world she’s created using Facebook, lies, and other digital technology is understandable.
Given that she lied to Nev for 8 months (and carried on a disingenuous romantic relationship with him within that time), when she tells the truth its poignant earnestness stings. As she draws Nev’s portrait during one of these honest discussions, the tears boiling in his eyes and her willingness to admit to her transgressions make a scene emblematic of why we create such technologies: to capture not just a moment but how that moment felt. Comments from Abby’s husband Vince give the film its title and offers a perfect “movie moment” that punctuates the film’s journey.
Just like the other questionable documentaries of 2010 (I’m Still Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop) the reality of Catfish has been questioned. As I have remarked of the other docs, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not since it only becomes an issue of categorization: Either it’s an amazing documentary or a fiction film with incredible performances both from Nev and Angela. It doesn’t change the film’s quality nor its ability to convey its message.
Peter Travers stated in his review of The Social Network:
“The final image of solitary Mark at his computer has to resonate for a generation of users (the drug term seems apt) sitting in front of a glowing screen pretending not to be alone.”
The Social Network wishes it could be half of the astute, blistering commentary on the internet generation that Catfish is. If one argues that Facebook is part of wider trend of sublimating oneself further into the Matrix, Catfish gets the point across with better humanity and clarity than that other Facebook movie.