Catfish (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

In quality it ranks somewhere between average mumblecore flick and basic cable reality shows such as Ghost Hunters. On the other hand, if you’re willing to pay for that level of entertainment this might be just the movie for you.


It’s tough for a young director to get the attention of a distributor these days. For that matter, it’s tough to get the attention of the film-going public, and without both of those things your film, no matter how wonderful, is just not going to be seen. So it’s not surprising that some filmmakers will try anything and everything to attract attention.


The problem is that a collective fatigue soon sets in, particularly if too many ambitious filmmakers are trying the same approach at the same time. Several documentaries released in the past year stake their claims for your attention in the fact that they are telling an amazing but true story (Exit Though the Gift Shop being a case in point). At the same time, they offer more than a few reasons to suspect that the filmmakers are really having the audience on. So when Catfish comes along proclaiming at the top of its metaphorical lungs to be presenting a stranger-than-truth story about an internet romance—well, do you remember what happened to the boy who cried wolf?


Not knowing the truth in this case, I’m going to evaluate Catfish by this standard: even if the story is entirely made up, is the movie worth seeing? For me the answer is no. In quality it ranks somewhere between average mumblecore flick and basic cable reality shows such as Ghost Hunters. On the other hand, if you’re willing to pay for that level of entertainment this might be just the movie for you. The best aspect of Catfish is the clever use it makes of low-budget technology (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that showed so many screen shots of computers and iPhones) to tell a story. The worst is its willingness to make fun of people who are not as cool as the hipsters making the film obviously think themselves to be. Of course, to some people that might be reason enough to see this film; the audience at the screening I attended seemed to enjoy laughing at the hicks, right on cue.


It’s really hard to say anything about Catfish without dropping in spoilers or becoming a shill for the film, so if you are planning to see it and want to go in 100 percent cold, you probably should stop reading right now. Of course, if that were really the case you wouldn’t be reading this review anyway.


The premise of Catfish is that Abby, an 8-year-old girl living in small-town Michigan, is so captivated by a photograph taken by 24-year-old photographer Nev Schulman, living in New York City, that she paints a version of it and mails it to him. They begin a long-distance correspondence full of cute details (Abby’s snake died so now the mouse which was his intended last meal is her new pet) and before long, Nev is friended on Facebook by Abby’s mom Angela. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon the whole family seems to be sending Nev stuff: Abby’s brother sends a t-shirt from his rock band, while Abby’s hottie half-sister Megan sends not only sexy messages but also songs she has written just for Nev. And it’s all being documented on video by Nev’s brother Ariel and Henry Joost, both of whom are also producers on the film.


Apparently Nev, for all his obvious familiarity with contemporary media and technology, has never seen that New Yorker cartoon with the caption, “On the internet no one knows you’re a dog.” He wholeheartedly believes every message from the Abby/Angela/Megan/et al. collective and doesn’t bother to check anything out with so much as a cursory Google search, nor does he wonder about the propriety of an 8-year-old sending him boxes and boxes of stuff. Until about 25 minutes in, that is, when he learns that those songs supposedly composed just for him were in fact lifted from YouTube.


Nev has the first of several faux-sincere conversations with his pals, the filmmakers, about how betrayed he feels. If he’s acting he’s not very good at it, and if he’s just being himself it’s not at all convincing on camera. But even so, this material could have been shaped into an intriguing short film. Unfortunately, with 75 minutes still to go to get to a respectable feature length, the directors have to stretch their thin material mercilessly. Nev and the filmmakers take a road trip to meet the family (playing the city hipsters out of their element for all it’s worth) and reveal themselves to be either shameless con men or exploiters of the pain of the less fortunate—in either case, all in the service of their precious little careers. Don’t say you weren’t warned, and if you really want to know what happened, there are quite a few reviews online that will tell you.


I will only comment on the filmmaking. Schulman and Joost use several techniques that are meant to demonstrate that what we are seeing is real: Nev pouts on camera about not wanting to continue the film, people make typos while sending incredibly lame messages and shaky-cam is used to an annoying degree. A gosh-golly attitude laid on with a trowel during the road trip is meant to make you forget that someone is operating a camera throughout. It also requires you to believe that these city boys actually thought dropping in unexpectedly in the middle of the night on rural people they’ve never met was a good idea.


Here’s another reason I don’t buy this as a true story: too many elements are planted from other recent films including My Kid Could Paint That and Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack? The heritage of earlier hoax films like The Blair Witch Project is also too obvious. Even the paintings look like something anyone could whip up with the aid of Photoshop. But in truth, it shouldn’t matter too much if the story is genuine or not: if this is the sort of thing you like, you should enjoy it just as much even if it’s all fake. After all, Jerry Springer didn’t exactly lose his audience after it was publicized that his guests were coached in how to fight most effectively on camera. | Sarah Boslaugh



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