Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Catching a CATFISH


- Catfish is an interesting little movie that's benefitted from some very slick marketing and hype. Launched under a shroud of secrecy, Catfish is a documentary in which, supposedly, the less you know going in, the better. And I'll admit, not knowing much about the film made the beginning and middle sections that much more intriguing and tense. The mystery surrounding the film's much-rumored "twist' caused my imagination to run wild, and I came up with all sorts of far-flung scenarios of what the movie might ultimately be "about." Without spoiling anything, I think that Catfish, in the end, proves a little underwhelming because the story that unfolds, while interesting and disturbing, is nothing so over-the-top as to be truly shocking. And, at some point, the reality of what we're seeing documented stops being a great story and becomes somewhat hard to watch - more sad than gripping, more exploitative than narratively compelling.

So, what is Catfish? Well, I know that the movie is supposed to be a total secret, but I don't think it's spoiling much to give some of the basic setup of the plot ... (skip if you wish).

Catfish is a documentary about a young guy named Nev Schulman, a freelance photographer and artist who lives in New York. Nev's brother Ariel, a filmmaker, decides to make a short documentary about online romance, using his brother as a subject. As it turns out, Nev has struck up a relationship, via Facebook, with a girl named Megan from Michigan. The story of how Nev and Megan met is somewhat convoluted. Nev had some photos published in a magazine, and ended up getting some pretty crazy fan mail from a young admirer named Abby. Abby, only 8 years old, was a child-prodigy artist, who was inspired by Nev's photos and used them as the basis for her paintings. Abby sent Nev prints of her paintings, and Nev, impressed, and flattered, wrote back to her, expressing admiration of her work. Abby kept sending Nev more and more of her paintings, and Nev kept encouraging her to do more. Eventually, Abby's mother calls Nev and thanks him for supporting her daughter. Soon enough, Nev is Facebook friends with Abby's mother, Abby's brother, and her older sister - Megan. Megan is also, apparently, an artist - a musician - and she begins sending Nev some of her songs to listen to. She and Nev begin exchanging emails, texts, and phone calls, and eventually, Nev is truly smitten with her, to the point where he is motivated to go to Michigan to meet Megan in person.

For the first third of the film, Catfish is an interesting slice-of-life style documentary about a developing online romance. There's a lot of humor as Nev is semi-reluctantly filmed by his brother and co-director / friend Henry Joost. We sense that something is a bit off about Nev's overeager relationship with Megan and her family though, so there's a slight sense of tension in the air as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

The second act of the film is where Catfish really comes alive. Once we know that something doesn't add up about Megan, even as Nev and his friends begin to proactively investigate her ... that's when the movie really takes on the trappings of a classic thriller. The movie gains a really spooky, ominous vibe, and it really does begin to feel like a classic Hitchcock-style thriller, as advertised. It's a lot of fun to speculate on all of the far-out what-if's that come to mind as Nev makes his way towards Michigan.

Finally, the third act of the film is something of a letdown. Again, don't want to give anything away, but I think there's an invitable feeling of being letdown by how things wrap up. The second half of the movie is constructed and edited in a manner to evoke a classical thriller, but all of that build-up seems wasted once we realize that the truth behind Megan is not so much shocking or thrilling as it is slightly creepy, very sad, and just plain pathetic. And it's also at this point in the film that Nev and co's actions and reactions seem less based in reality and more driven by the fact that they're all collectively trying to get a lot of footage for their film. By the film's end, Nev seems more self-satisfied that he got an interesting subject for the film than he is shocked or scared or creeped out or repulsed (ie what any regular person would feel) after discovering the true nature of "Megan." I just think that over the course of the movie, Catfish loses a lot of its original sense of legitimacy and spontaneity. Worse, the filmmakers sacrifice all that for a story that's ultimately, well, just not that great of a story.

Still, Catfish is interesting simply as a reminder of how crazy the online world can be. It's a movie that is sure to provoke a lot of discussions about Facebook and other social networking avenues, and their ability to function as a means of creating a new persona or personas, to mess with ideas of identity, to manipulate the truth and others' perception of the truth. Catfish is also a movie that's about half of a damn good reality-based thriller. When it's in that tension-filled, creepy storytelling mode, it's a really effective movie that you can't take your eyes off of. Later, it just gets weird, but no so weird as to be more than your typical Dateline fodder. To that end, there's ultimately something sort of off-putting about the whole thing - as in, what was the point of the film - what story is it telling and to what end? It's an intriguing film, one you'll want to talk about and debate. But to me, it is less than satisfying as a narrative. Tellingly, it's much more effective as a film when you have no idea what's actually going on.

My Grade: B-

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