The Internet was supposed to make meeting people easier. Instead, as this ingenious documentary from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman demonstrates, it's made the process immeasurably more complex, ambiguous, and fraught with danger. Not only does Catfish
ask whether the new modes of communication benefit human relationships, it questions the nature of personal identity and objective reality — not to mention documentary filmmaking. More than Inception
, it melts away the network of everyday certainty and suggests a world made up entirely of simulations and imaginary constructs. It's also charming, suspenseful, and moving. And very creepy.
The charm starts with a child's painting. Eight-year-old Abby contacts Nev Schulman, a photogenic New York City photographer, via Facebook, requesting permission to paint a copy of a picture he's had published in the New York Sun. Before you can say My Kid Could Paint That, her accomplished rendering arrives in the mail. This arouses the interest of Nev's brother, Ariel, and Ariel's filmmaking partner, Henry Joost, who share the same office with Nev. Could there be a movie here?
This is where some viewers have had doubts about the film's veracity and validity — a legitimate concern given such recent assaults on credulity as Casey Affleck & Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here. How did Joost and Ariel happen to be shooting at this opportune moment? Ariel insists early on that he'd already been in the habit of filming his brother. And if you buy that somewhat narcissistic explanation, there are other serendipitous developments in the course of the film that might give you pause. Me, I'm convinced it's the genuine article. And if it is a fake, then it's an even more amazing achievement — an investigation into truth and illusion that is itself illusory and truthful. Moreover, just to have conjured the twists, details, and characters involved in such a narrative would be a prodigious feat of the imagination.
So, back to the painting. It leads to an exchange of messages between Nev and Abby, more paintings in the mail, and then an encounter between Nev and Abby's older sister, Megan, on Facebook. Megan, as seen in her online photo, is beautiful, and it's clear that talent runs in the family, since she's also an excellent dancer and songwriter. Nev and the filmmakers are duly impressed when she writes a tune on the spur of the moment, records it, and sends them an MP3. It sounds downright professional. Meanwhile, other family members and friends of Abby and Megan pop up, and Nev gets entangled in an increasingly intimate, long-distance, virtual romance with Megan. Could he be falling in love? That's when the filmmakers decide to take things to another level.
Enough said — this is the Crying Game of documentaries, and any further exposition will spoil the falling-down-the-rabbit-hole effect. You might wonder how such passive, solitary activities as typing on a keyboard, reading texts, and, in a daring moment, following a GPS map can make for gripping cinema. But then you might have thought that watching a guy working in a darkroom in Blow-Up wouldn't be very interesting. And next to the Internet's capacity for deception, alienation, and personal reinvention, Michelangelo Antonioni's existential quandaries seem quaint.