Originally Reviewed – 10/22/2010
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: I am happy to report that the documentary is officially cool again. Ever since it became required to have at least one B list actor in your five million dollar “indie film” in order to get into Sundance, talented filmmakers with limited resources have turned to real life subjects to break into the biz. As a result, over the last few years, the documentary has made a turn from boring history film strips to actual pieces of cinema art. Estranged from a broken festival scene, filmmakers have started creating films that blur the line between doc and drama. Movies like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Paranormal Activity are prime examples of this shift and Catfish is just another example of this growing trend. While the movie is definitely more doc than drama, Catfish is a small yet intriguing mystery that’s wrapped in a crunchy documentary shell and the resulting concoction is a tasty morsel indeed.
The bare bones plot starts with the documenting of Facebook friendship between twenty-something New York photographer Nev and an exceptionally talented eight year old painter named Abby. Via this friendship, Nev gets to know her mom Abigail and her musician sister, Megan. When Nev starts getting romantically involved with Megan, all via online chat and phone, Nev and his filmmaker buddies decide to take a trip to Michigan to finally meet Meg in person. What follows next is an almost Hitchcockian mystery of false pretenses that provides equal parts suspense, humor and intrigue on its way to a shocking finale.
The filmmakers do a fine job with what they were given, which was basically a standard doc about a Facebook friendship that went strangely awry, much to the delight of the directors. While the first half hour feels like a passively shot affair, once the fimmakers realized, “Oh snap, we actually have a real movie here”, the film takes a turn in tone during the final hour. The result is a sense of shared discovery amongst the filmmakers and the audience, not only of the big surprise, but also over the fact they actually have something interesting to shoot. This spontaneity of the moment is what gives Catfish its energy and focus, enhancing the fascinating twist and making the film more interesting than it had any right to be.
Also, many critics have labeled this film as overly exploitive in the way it handles its central subject. While I agree to a point, the tone of the film turns almost apologetic in the final twenty minutes which, in my mind, forgives the many hidden cameras and sneaking around the filmmakers utilize to get what they want. Another minor gripe is that the movie has a good deal of filler in it, understandable considering the subject matter but still disheartening. Also, while some people may disagree with me, I really feel half the film was shot “after the fact”, which grates against the whole “shoot from the hip” style the movie was going for.
Minor gripes aside, Catfish is a fully engaging and entertaining docu-story about privacy, relationships and being careful when meeting people via social networking. Even if a friend has spoiled the twist for you, the movie is still worth checking out as it does its best to be more than the sum of its parts. While it’s most certainly not the best documentary I’ve seen all year, Catfish still manages to provide ample surprises and in the end treats its subjects with the kind of empathy and respect they deserve. Although it can be viewed as a bit on the exploitive side, I see it more of an open window into what makes people tick inside this sheltered box we call social media. Accepting a random friend request will never be the same.
Score – 80%