Relationship: It's complicated
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 24, 2010
The documentary "Catfish" could not have been made five years ago. An often jarringly intimate film about a young man's odyssey through virtual life and love on the Internet, it eventually morphs into a mystery in which YouTube, Google Maps, mobile phones and GPS devices play crucial roles. The whole story, of course, is captured with a ubiquitous digital video camera, which seems to be compulsively turned on during the subject's every waking moment.
That would be Nev Schulman, a handsome 24-year-old dance photographer who proves to be a canny leading man in "Catfish," which since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year has sparked plenty of skepticism about its authenticity. And indeed, Schulman's story -- and the fact that so much of it transpired while the camera was running -- seems almost too good to be true, the kind of absorbing, twisty cautionary tale that Hollywood pays screenwriters millions to confect.
In 2007, when one of Schulman's photographs was published in a New York newspaper, he received a Facebook message from an 8-year-old girl in Michigan asking permission to re-create the image in a painting. When she sent him the picture, Schulman was impressed and began a correspondence with the prodigy, named Abby, eventually "friending" her entire family -- including her attractive older sister, Megan.
What begins as a movie about an unlikely intergenerational friendship, then, becomes the story of Web-based romance, as Schulman's brother Ariel and Henry Joost, directors of "Catfish," film the couple's nascent phone flirtations and instant messages. Using lots of close-ups of Facebook pages, highlighted e-mails and over-sharing phone calls, "Catfish" plays like an of-the-moment portrait of modern life, where boundaries between disclosure and privacy, identity and projection, and reality and fiction seem increasingly blurred. And when the plot thickens into an even more provocative philosophical and emotional roux, the filmmakers shrewdly ratchet up the suspense, turning "Catfish" into a real-life cyber-thriller as addictively compelling as Facebook itself.
In a flourish of felicitous timing, "Catfish" arrives in theaters just days before "The Social Network," which dramatizes the invention of Facebook. But whereas that big-budget feature explores the creation myth of a huge business and cultural force, "Catfish" captures and in many ways conveys its personal impact. As Nev and the audience plunge headlong through the rabbit hole of online relationships, profound questions are raised about identity, authenticity and deception. But "Catfish" offers just as many consoling answers.
The most poignant passages of the film don't occur online but in encounters between flesh-and-blood people, whether they're the dancers Nev photographs while on a job in Colorado or in the film's mind-blowing third act. Even in an increasingly virtual world, the filmmakers suggest, keeping it real still matters.
Contains some sexual references.