Another week, another faux documentary? Whereas the substance of the Joaquin Phoenix film I'm Still Here transcended its flimsy verisimilitude, the appearance and disclosure of truth lies at the heart of Catfish, one of the most buzzed-about films at this year's Sundance fest.
As the story goes, in late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost began filming a online relationship that Nev, their roommate and Ariel's brother, was forging with a family in upstate Michigan. Contact was initiated when Nev, a photographer, received a painting of one of his published photographs in the mail from Abby, an 8-year-old child prodigy. After becoming Facebook "friends" with Abby, Nev expands his relationships to include her mother, her attractive older sister and some of her Internet acquaintances.
Months of phone calls, instant messaging, Google Street View and more paintings eventually lead Nev and company to question the veracity their new cyber friends. Their suspicions culminate with an unannounced excursion to Michigan to confront the older sister, Megan, and her clan.
The release of Catfish is a tidy bridge connecting the Joaquin Phoenix curio and next week's opening of The Social Network, David Fincher's film about the creation of Facebook. Phoenix's performance turned out to be just that, but I'm inclined to accept the vast majority of Catfish, even if certain scenes feel as though they were re-created for dramatic effect. There is also widespread controversy over the film being marketed as a Blair Witch-type faux-doc thriller.
The question here is not one of authenticity. Catfish is a revealing look at the very real world of downtrodden, bored, criminally inclined or just mischievous people reinventing themselves in cyberspace. Is this sort of activity inherently wrong—as Catfish implies—or is it a predictable, even reasonable, function of the medium? In this film, it's not clear which is worse, lying about whether it's really your singing voice on an MP3 you've e-mailed to a pal, or a Manhattan professional arranging a tryst with a 19-year-old girl he's never met.
What guts Catfish is the snarky exploitation the film utilizes. So much of the film consists of three smug, coffee-shop elites gleefully deconstructing the virtual lives of their newfound friends, whose only actual objective was sending lovely free paintings to Nev and perhaps a wider, more cosmopolitan audience. Nev and his filmmaking buddies feign victimization, then amplify their self-absorption by physically intruding on the lives of their distant cyberfriends.
What Nev—and the audience—discover is provocative and sad, but so is the film's portrayal of their discovery, never more so than when the camera lingers over mentally handicapped children as they scream and involuntarily hit themselves in the face. When one character apologizes to Nev for deceiving him, all he can muster in somber reply is, "I'll be OK."
Last week, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival invited its Twitter followers to pick up passes to an early screening of Catfish. The irony is that if the film were to be screened at Full Frame, audiences would lambast this nebulous, nefarious product. Steve James' well-meaning Stevie was chastised several years ago for far less.
There is truth swimming around Catfish. But, like various species of its aquatic namesake, the film is a bottom feeder and a parasite.