Film Review – Catfish
In Catfish, we meet Nev Schulman, a photographer in New York City. His brother Rel and their friend Henry Joost make movies. When Nev is contacted by 8-year-old Michigan girl Abby, who has created a painting from one of his photos, Rel and Henry begin to document a burgeoning modern-day-pen-pal friendship between the two. Soon Nev is also in regular contact with Abby’s family, and begins a serious flirtation with her older sister Megan via email, Facebook, and texting.
After several months, clues start surfacing that make Nev wonder whether he knows the full story of this family. Because we are watching the movie he and his friends made about it, obviously he didn’t. An amateur investigation ensues, with the men eventually showing up at the family’s doorstep unannounced. What the men find along the way and on their arrival is what I’m not supposed to tell you.
This film is presented as a documentary, and has been described as a “reality thriller.” (The marketing campaign implores: “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.”) For reasons I can’t describe without spoilers, I do not take the film at face value. I believe that at the very least, certain scenes were heavily manipulated and the filmmakers knew more than they act as if they do at particular moments. I have, however, read interviews with them in which they sound very convincing and have explanations for certain questions that arise while watching the film. There are two particular elements that nag at me that I’ve not heard them questioned on, but that discussion will have to wait for another post. (I will say only this—if you’ve seen the film, think back on the scene in which they check the mailbox. Play it over again in your head. Does it make sense, given what we know about how mail works?)
Now, if I’m right, this fake-out scenario still doesn’t inherently make the film a disappointment. Sure, I feel a bit irritated that, in my opinion, these guys are trying to get away with something that’s becoming a tired gimmick. But I can enjoy a good story regardless of the outside forces creating it. And they certainly do know how to build curiosity, sneak up on revelations, and maximize tension when an answer is divulged. I can’t fault the composition of the film in this regard. The real problem is, whether accepting the reality the filmmakers claim, or thinking it to be staged, it’s a wasted opportunity. The film touches on several big themes, but hardly explores them in its zeal to present a “mystery.” That’s great for publicity and marketing, but just because a story contains a big revelation doesn’t mean that the reveal itself will create a satisfying viewing experience, or interesting commentary. A version of this film that spent 20 minutes on the filmmakers’ story and 75 on the family’s would’ve been infinitely more interesting to me than this one that roughly uses the opposite ratio. But that’s not the story that these men wanted to tell.
Should this film eventually be proven to be a hoax, my opinion of it won’t change, but I think those of many others will plummet. It may not mean anything, but I can’t think of a single documentary-style film that’s authenticity was questioned that turned out to be the real deal. If it seems too astonishing to be true, the pattern says it always is. From Cannibal Holocaust to The Blair Witch Project to I’m Still Here to whatever internet video bounces around on a given day, it can be confusing or fun or compelling or maddening or any combination of those things to interact with material that’s presented in this way. The best of it will hold up even after the jig is up. If that happens, Catfish won’t.
Final Grade: C