Film Review – Catfish (Second Take)

You’re not supposed to know about Catfish. The tagline on the poster says, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” The entire ad campaign wants you to know that Catfish is a secret not to be shared.

And Catfish is a movie all about secrets. It’s one of two Facebook films to be released in the coming weeks and it illustrates the dangers of navigating the social network. In the film, Nev Shulman, a New York based photographer, begins a relationship with a family through a little girl named Abby who finds one of his pictures in a newspaper and paints it for him. He friends the family on Facebook and slowly starts to fall for Abby’s older sister, Megan. Throughout this little drama Nev’s brother, Ariel Shulman and Ariel’s partner, Henry Joost, two New York filmmakers, decide to start filming Nev’s story. And then they take a trip down the rabbit hole.

Catfish is about something more relevant than just secrets. It’s about the desire for human connectivity and the lengths we’ll go for that contact. Though the filmmakers have done a good job of keeping the events of Catfish mysterious, there’s nothing here that anyone living in the modern digital age hasn’t thought about, been afraid of, or even heard stories of. What Catfish does well is keep the narrative chugging forward so that the suspense builds towards it’s inevitable conclusion. Even as the threadbare story threatens to break apart in the slower moments that conclusion keeps barreling toward you.

When it’s all over this film will give you a lot to talk about. It’s not a film that’s easy to recommend, only because the motivations that propel the filmmakers aren’t always pure or ethically sound. I found myself hoping at times that they would just back off and quit pushing for more answers and then a moment later enjoying the revelations that followed from their shameless needling. It will make you uncomfortable. It will force you to examine conflicting emotions. But it in a way it’s the perfect film for the modern age, as each successive generation becomes more and more comfortable with virtual lives, with avatars, with recording and transmitting ourselves through the web. This is not a film that could have existed 10 years ago but what makes it interesting is that the impulses that allowed for this movie’s existence are nothing new. How long have people toyed with the idea of living a new life, adopting a new persona, of leaving behind the old twisted shell of what we are and becoming something new, the thing we wish we were? It’s an old desire, even if it is misguided, this illusion that a self transformation can be obtained without, simply by the lies we tell others. The internet and Facebook didn’t generate these preoccupations, they simply catalyzed them, allowing people to take their deceits to new, unhealthy levels.

Nev Shulman finds himself the victim of one of these deceits and he plays the part well. But what I found myself asking as I left the theatre is whether or not Nev was just as culpable in his deceit as the other players in this drama. We all put ourselves out there with our public faces and we keep the private face for ourselves and those closest to us. Nev and his friends demand utmost honesty but I’m not sure they ever give it themselves. It’s only natural, everyone changes in front of a camera, but how far would this charade have gone without the incentive of a feature length film hanging in the balance? And when you and your friends are the producers and directors doesn’t that change the angle of how you present yourself? I’m not sure a viewer could ever know who the people in Catfish really are but we do know what they want. They want that human contact. They want to be loved and if not loved, at least understood. It’s a natural impulse that we should not ignore or be embarrassed by. We’re only human, after all. Catfish kneads this theme like a lump of fresh dough, rolling the story thin until it illustrates it’s point in a series of beautiful scenes that make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

Final Grade: B

If you are interested in seeing our original review, it is available here.