Reviewed by AJ Miranda.
First, the story. It starts with Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer and refreshingly earnest 20-something, who receives a painting in the mail. It’s a watercolor rendering of one of his photographs. The artist is 8-year-old Abby from rural Michigan. We don’t know how she found his photo, which appeared in a New York newspaper. But Abby becomes attached to Nev, adding him on Facebook and painting more of his photos every chance she gets.
Nev soon becomes Facebook friends with Abby’s mom, Angela, as well as Abby’s 19-year-old sister, Megan. While Nev’s pen pal friendship with Abby is the catalyst, the real meat of the plot comes from Nev’s relationship with Megan. The two go from Facebook chatting to texting to talking on the phone. Though they’ve never met, a budding romance forms, with all the cheesy “I want to feel you in my arms” kinda lines that anyone who’s ever done the long-distance thing can relate to.
What follows is perhaps the most predictable twist in movie history, followed by subsequent semi-startling reveals. In fact, you’ll predict the big twist five minutes into Catfish, but the filmmakers will spend the next 40 making sure you’re emotionally invested enough in the naïve yet supremely likable Nev for it all to resonate.
Taken as a stand-alone movie, divorced from hype or misleading trailers, Catfish is a decent movie. You won’t find much wrong with it; the editing and pacing were good, the characters fun and engaging. Nev comes off as hip yet totally unassuming—a regular Joe Blow for the American Apparel generation.
But at some point, there’s a disconnect. And I can’t put my finger on it, based on one viewing.
|Nev Schulman in Catfish|
By all official accounts, Catfish is supposed to be a documentary. Universal Pictures, the studio behind the movie, even calls it a “reality thriller,” implying some level of genuineness. But there are too many perfectly funny reveals and too many perfectly heartbreaking moments for it all to have been spontaneously caught on camera. Life isn’t this perfect, even if it is this dysfunctional. The characters and their actions aren’t a stretch; it’s the way it all comes together that makes me question the movie’s legitimacy. Either these are actors acting, or they’re real people in staged situations.
It’s the cinematography of The Blair Witch Project meets the concept of You’ve Got Mail, sprinkled with all the requisite quirk and charm of a Wes Anderson joint. You get the sense that Catfish wants to be viewed as a thought-provoking film, but none of the questions it asks are anything that people logging into chat rooms 15 years ago haven’t already pondered (e.g. Is this anonymous Internet person who claims to be a hot teenager really an aging overweight woman?).
If you think it’s cynical to doubt the movie’s authenticity, consider this: We learned today in The New York Times that Joaquin Phoenix’s human-train-wreck documentary I’m Still Here was actually a stunning piece of performance art perpetrated by the actor with help from director and brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Joaquin “Walk the Line” Phoenix lived in-character for a couple years, on camera and off, even fooling David Letterman and his national TV audience. He pulled that off as a constantly-under-the-microscope A-list celebrity. Is it then unreasonable to think three no-name New York filmmakers could craft a well-executed mockumentary about targets as obvious as lonely Midwesterners and Facebook?
Fake or not, this is still a mostly enjoyable film with sympathetic characters and touching moments. If you ever wondered what Wes Anderson directing an M. Knight Shyamalan movie would look like, Catfish is your answer.
This film is rated PG-13 for some sexual references. Runtime: 94 min. Watch the official trailer below.