Review: “Catfish” (2010)

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The ads for the cryptically promoted new documentary Catfish urge you to not “let anyone tell you what it is.” Well … I’m not going to, exactly, so don’t worry.

But I will counter the pitchmen’s pearl-clutching bit of cautioning with my own warning: “Don’t let anyone tell you that this movie is nearly as scary or disturbing as the misleading ad campaign suggests it is.”

Why not – hell, horror movies lately have done boffo business selling themselves as documentaries (The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity), so why not sell a documentary as a horror film?

Catfish follows a photographer named Nev Shulman (“Neev”), whose filmmaker brother and friend begin documenting his strange long-distance friendship with a child painter named Abby. After having a photo of two dancers prominently featured in a major publication, Nev received via mail an oil painting recreating his photograph from Abby, a girl in Michigan with a love of the arts. Nev begins a pen-pal relationship with the precocious tot, which leads to more paintings and a helluvalotta Facebooking (seriously – between this and The Social Network, I think FB is the biggest movie star of the fall season).

Catfish_movie_image-4-600x337Nev Shulman in Catfish

Of course, Nev also communicates with Abby’s mother, Angela, and soon enough is happily texting and posting to Abby’s siblings, Megan and Alex, both of whom are also involved in the arts. Over time, Nev (who lives in NYC) and Megan (Abby’s 19-year-old, horse-loving sister, in Michigan) strike up an odd long-distance romance rooted in texts, affectionate Facebook posts, emails and phone calls.

Eventually, Nev tires of the virtual relationship and when on a trip to Colorado for a photo shoot decides to pay Megan (and Abby and Angela and company) a surprise visit.

This, naturally, is when things get a bit strange.

In fact, if you are going to be remotely spoiled by the knowledge that what Nev and Co. find in Michigan is not exactly what the pages of Facebook led them to expect, I’ve got a bridge right down the street I can sell to you, cheap.

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But that’s not to say that the revelations that follow are uninteresting, or unmoving. Yes, Nev and his brother and friend have stumbled upon something fascinating and somewhat troubling. But is it the horrorshow that the ominous trailer ad ads (which feature blood red ink smeared on black, with the scratchy warning mentioned earlier) might lead you to believe?

Absolutely not.

So, to put it bluntly: If you’re thinking that Catfish is going to scare you, aside from one moderately creepy nighttime scene, it won’t. It might pique your curiosity for a few minutes, but nothing in here is going to give you nightmares, unless you have an unfounded fear of the Internet, Michigan, or self-promoting filmmakers.

catfish_movie_stills_6Nev and Megan

The questions about how “real” Catfish is are founded – while I don’t doubt that Nev and his friends did indeed find themselves in the situation that serves as the crux of the film’s “mystery”, the matter of how they got there (and how much they knew going into it) is definitely suspect. There are important details that don’t add up related to the uncovering of various clues, and plenty of moments that ring false (or maybe that’s just me, as I’ve had to deal with more of this breed of dubiously charming twentysomething filmmaker than I care to and don’t trust a one of them).

In the end, Catfish won’t likely leave you shaken, but it is undeniably sad and at times fascinating. And if you can look past Nev’s frequently-flashed perfect smile and the questionable mechanics of the mystery and focus on the questions ultimately posed about loneliness, alienation, and fantasy (all in the age of Facebook), it does have a lesson to impart.

As Le Tigre succinctly put it in their 2001 anthem: “Get Off the Internet”. (Thanks for reading!)

RATING (OUT OF 5):

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AD CAMPAIGN RATING (OUT OF 5):

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Catfish is Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, gratuitous chest hair, and a scene of painfully bad sexting.


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