Review: Catfish

Written by Jordan Petersen on . Posted in Film

The Social Network should have won Best Picture. It was the right movie at the right time done the right way. But that’s a different conversation.

This conversation is about Catfish, the other Facebook movie that came out last year and didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. Presented as a documentary, it chronicles the story of a relationship between a boy and a girl, or rather a boy and an entire family, which happens to include a girl he falls for. The catch? Their whole relationship — Nev (the boy), Angela (the mother), Abby (the 8-year-old), and Megan (his huge crush) — all takes place over Facebook and phone calls. There are pictures, mailed packages, long conversations, and endless messaging, because Nev lives in New York and Megan’s family lives in Michigan.

But then Nev (and his filmmaker roommates) decide to fit a surprise visit to Michigan into a business trip. Nev wants to meet these people in person.

And that’s where any summary of this film should stop. The way everything unfolds is riveting. Nearly unbelievable. In fact, that’s the real question everyone is asking. How much (if any) of this was contrived? It’s presented as a documentary. Not like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, but an actual, this-is-reality documentary. No tricks.

That presents some problems for the observant members of its audience. Documentaries don’t often (ever?) work out so neatly. There are a lot of extremely handy coincidences and blind spots that you have to overlook or accept in order to believe the whole thing was as real as the filmmakers claim it is.

For their part, they are dogged in their assertion that it is 100 percent genuine, but they also seem a bit quick to provide some false choices — it’s either completely real or they wrote and cast and acted and directed the whole thing. Surely there are some possibilities in-between? The thing is, it’s impossible to prove anything. The only three people in the world who would know whether any part of this thing was contrived would be the filmmakers themselves.

It comes down to whether they’re the kind of people who would hold up this kind of lie for the sake of success. I think there are a lot of people who would, though the consequences are a bit dire. I want to tell you to go see this film. I think it’s incredibly pertinent, fascinating and entertaining. It’s a great film. But at the same time, if it’s not entirely true, then these filmmakers are in some moral trouble. If there is contrivance here — and I can’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil anything — but if there was some manipulation, some dishonesty, then it means this film is appallingly exploitative, and I would urge that no one support it. Tough question.

But it could be entirely true. Sometimes life grants us perfect narrative arcs — I’m thinking of the ending of New York Doll, in particular. Sometimes the timing is just right. And if this is true, it’s one of the most remarkable films ever made, and a must-see for the contemporary world.

If it’s fake (even partly), then it’s still a really good film, but it also has no soul. And we know that giving that away for some amount of fame and fortune — or perhaps some popularity at Sundance — has certainly been done before.

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