Other than being vaguely aware of an argument as to the authenticity of the contents of Catfish, and the equally vague but glowing praise for the film coming out of of Sundance — it seems that my fellow reviewers honored the advertised wishes of Rogue Pictures in keeping their friends in the dark. I walked into the Arclight Theater with a clean slate; having no idea what kind of film I would be reviewing.
What I was treated to was a lovely, disturbing, hopeful, perhaps too well edited/played out documentary. The last part, however — never really matters, because the content of the film is still rich and meaningful, which ends up being more important than most of the questions you may end up asking yourself once the credits roll.
Catfish is the documentation of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, a photographer out of New York, and his correspondence with an eight-year-old Michigan girl named Abby; a young artist who paints one of Nev’s photos and sends him one of her prints. As their relationship develops Nev is introduced to a host of family and friends of young Abby — and a network of acquaintances via the social networking site, Facebook.
As his involvement deepens, with more paintings and letters moving back and forth between Michigan and New York, Nev finds himself developing an online relationship with Abby’s beautiful, musically talented older sister, Megan. He begins making big decisions about his future based on the growing connection and attraction between he and Megan, but shortly before things come to a head — a wrench is thrown into Nev’s perception of the situation — the entire situation from the beginning of the correspondence — and this is when the documentary begins to pose its larger questions, much of which is left for the audience to answer once they’ve left the theater.
Nev’s older brother Ariel, the documentarian, and his film partner Henry Joost began the documentary as a simple film project, which — in their own words, was never intended to be a feature. When the story begins to truly unfold, and the gravity of the situation — what is real, who is real, and how simple it is to skew perception in an age of social media communication — they shortly realize that there is much more story than was ever planned for.
This, however, is one of the small catching points for me. For as organic as many of the unraveling situations are supposed to be, a number of the pivotal scenes save some of the last involving Abby’s family, come off as if they’ve gone through multiple takes. The reactions, while still genuine, feel streamlined and polished. There are heavy revelations in this film — things that, if I were in Nev’s shoes, would probably involve some level of fury. Ariel himself states that Nev is a mercurial young man, particularly when a camera is rolling on him. I didn’t see much of that, which again — makes me wonder.
That said, I honesty don’t care past a natural curiosity, because the documentary really is beautiful. Nev is a charismatic subject, and his connection to Megan is fun to watch develop over the course of the film. The revelations are still potent, the realities that we are met with as viewers are heartbreaking, and the final scenes of the film perfectly tie up the entire experience in a way that makes you leave the theater both feeling good, and considering changing your privacy settings on whatever social networking site you use — seriously.
Rogue has a real winner in Catfish; it’s a quality documentary, and I count myself lucky to have seen it.
The Upside: A message worth sharing with viewers, particularly those of us that are so connected via the internet.
The Downside: Perhaps a little too polished and perfect considering the medium, but still genuine. Not so much a downside from my end, but it may bother some viewers.
On The Side: The “sexting” conversation? I’ve had worse while drunk — with a stranger. I live in a pit of shame.