Film Review

‘Catfish’ a fine documentary dish

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"Catfish." It's a movie. A documentary even. But is it real? And does it matter?

After walking out of the theater following the screening for the documentary “Catfish” I almost immediately heard another critic say, “There’s no way that was real.”
This movie has stirred up a lot of buzz by having an ending that is a bit too-good-to be-true, accompanied by a marketing campaign that begs you to keep the film’s crowing reveal a secret. (Fear not, you’ll find no spoilers here, but do know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and that Norman Bates dresses up like his mother to kill people. Just had to get it out of my system.)
But when you get past all the noise and hoopla surrounding this documentary, you’ll find a well-made, provocative and emotionally resonant movie where it ultimately doesn’t matter how “true” the events actually are. (For the record, I would like to say that everything I’ve read up on states that, minus some editing, what you see on screen is 100 percent authentic. Take that for whatever it is worth.)
“Catfish” was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and the main subject of the film is Ariel’s brother, Nev. Since he has a camera shoved in his face for an hour and a half, it certainly helps matters that Nev is charming, earnest and good-looking.
Nev is a photographer in New York who one day gets contacted via Facebook by an 8-year-old girl from Michigan named Abby who made a painting of one of Nev’s photographs. Abby’s painting shows the promise of a prodigy, and Nev agrees to send her more of his pictures for her to paint.
Nev then becomes “Facebook friends” with other apparently artistically talented members of Abby’s family, including her parents and her brother. But it is Abby’s older and strikingly beautiful (at least according to her online profile pictures) sister Megan that Nev develops a more serious relationship with.
The two talk on the phone and become rather passionately involved, or as much as two people can over an Internet connection and cell phone.
As you would imagine, when Nev begins to do a little deeper investigation into this family with whom he’s become so emotionally involved, certain things don’t exactly add up.
With some prodding from Henry and Ariel, Nev agrees to make an unplanned trip to Michigan to meet this family face-to-face, and it is at this pivotal moment that “Catfish” becomes surprisingly suspenseful.
I will adhere to my “no spoilers” promise, but what I will say is that what they do find in Michigan may not be as sensationalistic as you might expect, but it does pack an emotional wallop.
What we are left with is a movie that is impressively touching and compassionate along with being a smart little commentary on human interaction in the digital age.
In spite of all that, your initial reaction to “Catfish” will likely be the question “Was it fake?” I know it was mine. In a post “Blair Witch” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” world we’ve grown a bit skeptical of the ol’ documentary.
In a film class in college, our professor showed us a clip from a documentary about the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II. It featured a lot of dramatic footage of burning aircraft carriers and planes crashing into the sea.
Our professor then turned on the lights and told us no video was taken at the Battle of the Coral Sea and what we had seen was cribbed from other clashes in the Pacific. This didn’t make the battle any less real or the facts the documentary presented any less accurate. What it did mean was the filmmakers took some liberties to help make their point.
It is important to remember that documentaries are not journalism. They are movies constructed to illicit a particular response from the audience. Good documentaries present truths that are oftentimes greater than the sum of their “facts,” and “Catfish” is a very good documentary.

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