Dubious documentaries were popular in 2010, from the we-now-know-as-fake Joaquin Phoenix meltdown I’m Still Here to the so-crazy-it-just-might-be-true street art exposé Exit Through the Gift Shop. And then there’s Catfish, a cautionary tale about Internet relations that’s part thrilling true story and part sleazy exploitative mishmash. Where you think the ratio falls will depend on how genuine you believe filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost — and their subject, Yaniv Schulman — really are, but with a film that cautions us that any digital information can be manipulated, it’d be foolhardy to take everything these guys say as gospel truth.
Catfish, which was a sensation at Sundance, has been propelled into cultural consciousness by its claims of a wild story with a major twist in its final act, and so I’ll do my best to keep any surprises intact — the principal nature of the twist will be quite apparent to most viewers within 20 minutes though.
The story begins with Yaniv — who goes by Nev — receiving a piece of artwork from a stranger in Michigan, an 8-year-old girl named Abby, who copied one of his published photographs into an accomplished oil painting. Nev shares an office in New York City with his brother and Joost, who sense a great story emerging.
The correspondence sets off a firestorm of online friendships between Nev and Abby; Abby’s mother, Angela; and perhaps most importantly, Abby’s sister Megan, a knockout who Nev falls for over Facebook chat, flirty text messages and hushed phone calls.
Suffice to say, things aren’t quite as they appear, and Nev and the two filmmakers decide to take an unannounced trip to Michigan to surprise the family. Now, I don’t doubt what they found there is true — and honestly, probably a lot more common that most people realize. What doesn’t pass the truth test is the build-up — a collection of recordings that display a coldly narcissistic put-on “naïveté” from Nev, who’s just too smart to have been taken hook, line and sinker like the film posits.
If the first two acts frequently feel artificial, I’m not prepared to chalk that up to camera fright. I don’t know how early Nev and company suspected something was fishy (pun only sort of intended), but you can bet it’s not in the fortuitous moment far into the film when someone decides to do about three minutes of Google searches. There’s just no way someone honestly waits this long to look for any public record of some frankly amazing events.