Review by Michael Edwards
THIS simple documentary about a long-distance relationship conducted via phone and Facebook has been quietly building in hype as its mysterious plot is touted variously as the ‘other’ Facebook movie, a great hoax, and a fantastic insight into modern social interactions. One thing for sure, however, is that Catfish is generating a lot of debate.
The story begins when photographer Nev Schulman receives a letter from eight-year-old Abby of Michigan, who claims to have seen one of his photographs in a national newspaper and been inspired to paint it.
Curiosity piqued, Nev’s brother Ariel and his filmmaking partner Henry Joost decide to film the ensuing correspondence.
As Nev begins to receive paintings from Abby, and has increasing contact with her family, we’re invited to assess the bonds that develop between them.
Nev’s affection for Abby is fuelled by the impressive artworks she sends, his admiration for her parents inspired by their friendly phone manner, liberal attitude and creative lifestyle, but most interesting is his increasingly close connection to the family’s oldest daughter, Megan.
A burgeoning romance built on short, and occasionally a little steamy, phone conversations combined with stints of Facebook chatting (or is it stalking?) emerges from this exceptional series of events.
In many ways it comes across as a perfectly reasonable basis for something more substantial… after all, we live in an age where more and more of our socialising and networking is done via programmes like Facebook and Twitter.
But, of course, just as we begin to wonder whether everything can really be as it seems, so do Nev and his filmmaker friends. Thus we begin a capricious journey across the country to meet these people we’ve watched Nev grow so close to.
By keeping us so close to Nev throughout the film, this documentary manages to inject real emotional tension into its subject matter.
The charming way he meets this amazing family of creatives is one of those moments of magic that we all hope can happen in our lives, and the response of Nev to its occurrence seems so honest that it is almost impossible not to be caught up in it.
This makes the inevitable questioning of the people behind the profiles, paintings and phone calls all the more wrenching. It could have been all too easy to sit and think that it’s too good to be true, but that is never the case. As a result, Catfish is not just emotional portrait of electronic friendship, but a genuinely tense suspense drama that keeps you guessing all the way through.
On top of this comes the inevitable debate over the validity of the documentary itself. Like Capturing the Friedmans or, more recently, I’m Still Here, some of the scenes seem too emotional, too perfect almost, to be real.
Similarly, the shifts in plot are so dramatic that you have to believe that these media-savvy youngsters are either so intelligent that they can fake the most realistic of life-events, or so immersed in their art that they instinctively reach for the camera at every key moment.
Regardless of whether you believe the events or not, there is plenty to be said for this film. It will spark debate on some controversial subjects, it will drag you into a rich and moving plot, and it is chocked full of nice visual touches (like using Google Maps to chart their journey across America) that are at once immersive and impressive.
Running time: 89mins
UK DVD Release: January 10, 2011