“Catfish feels like the most relevant examination of humanity and love in the Internet age…”
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
When a poster for a film includes nothing but its title and the disclaimer “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” that film will likely be a headache to review. Though the idea of an audience tabula rasa has become somewhat over-fetishized (especially in the age of constant information/spoiler exchange) Catfish certainly is a film that gains something from a clean viewing. During a post-film Q&A, the filmmakers described their intention to replicate their own bizarre, rabbit hole descending experience and gift it to the world. So, for all those who want exactly that, Catfish is a documentary from directing team Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman which catalogues the surprising occurrences of a certain amount of time in the life of Schulman’s brother Nev. It is an affecting, well shot, and beautifully constructed documentary that expertly examines the human condition. For those who dare to marginally defy the film’s marketing campaign, please continue reading.
The tale begins as professional photographer Nev, who seems to live, work, and hang exclusively with his two documentary filmmaker pals, is contacted by 8-year old painter, Abby. She sends him a painting she has done of one of his ballet photographs, and from there they start an online correspondence. Due to his kindness and supportive demeanor with Abby, her mother Angela messages Nev to thank him. It doesn’t take long for Abby’s flirtatious older sister Megan to get in touch with Nev, as well as various other family members and friends. And such is the genesis of Nev’s “facebook family”, as well as a long-distance phone and e-mail romance with Megan.
The turning point of the film [spoiler alert] comes during a late night conversation with Megan. Henry and Ariel are present, and Megan–a gifted singer–is sending Nev songs. After innocently doing a little research on a particularly captivating song, the trio discovers that Megan has been sending audio from live YouTube performances. It’s crushing to watch as Nev realizes that the woman he’s fallen in love with appears to be a compulsive liar, but it’s also only the “tip of the iceberg”, as Henry puts it. From this pivotal moment, it quickly becomes clear that nothing about the family is quite as it seems.
Catfish is being marketed as a thriller in the faux-documentary mold, which is misleading but also strangely apt. The film, while not a thriller in any traditional sense, is nonetheless driven by a propulsive sense of discovery. It is also [purportedly] an actual documentary–sorry, there are no monsters, aliens, or homicidal crazies here–but its construction resembles the kind of consciously lo-fi narrative film that’s currently in vogue. Missing are talking head interviews and stuffily explanatory slideshows and instead the film is shot fast and loose and filled out with savvy online flourishes like Facebook friend confirmations and Google Earth aided traveling scenes. –
While the hype of the film focuses on the twists and the turns, the heart is in the enrapturing, human, spoiler proof, moments. These mostly arrive in the final third of the film, once Nev and company have left their New York apartment in search of answers and arrived at Angela’s doorstep. With the film’s central reveal on the table, Catfish could have lost all of its manic energy were it not for the deft touch of the filmmakers. While audiences wait, likely agape with disbelief, Joost and Schulman show admirable restraint is dishing out the details and focus instead on the sympathetic, identifiable story beneath all the deceit.
The documentarians behind Catfish may have gotten an incredibly lucky break by ceaselessly filming the exploits of their lovelorn roommate, but the two spend the entire film completely earning all of the praise coming their way. The film is often gorgeously shot, the editing is intelligent and refreshing, and there are times Catfish feels like the most relevant examination of humanity and love in the Internet age. If recreating their ridiculous adventure in a digestible ninety minutes was their goal, Misters Joost and Schulman have succeeded wildly. But as Nev’s photographs (and Abby’s paintings) represent an instant taken from a larger piece, Catfish is also a snapshot of our rapidly changing world, where our ideas about reality and identity are in unstable flux.