The popular human-interest story of a child prodigy becomes an engrossing meditation on truth, media exploitation and the value of art in "My Kid Could Paint That."
The popular human-interest story of a child prodigy becomes an engrossing meditation on truth, media exploitation and the value of art in “My Kid Could Paint That.” Docu by Amir Bar-Lev (“Fighter”) is a sometimes uncomfortably intimate look at Marla Olmstead, an upstate N.Y. tot who at age 4 won international attention as a “pint-sized Pollock” making remarkably precocious abstract paintings — only to be “debunked” on the same scale months later when doubts were cast on the phenom. Sony Classics’ Sundance purchase should bring her yet more renown as a fascinating subject handled with intelligently provocative care.
The photogenic Olmsteads seem a nice, hardworking, unremarkable family — mom Laura works as a dental assistant, dad Mark on the Frito-Lay factory nightshift. Marla and equally adorable younger brother Zane appear well-adjusted.
Yet not long after she turned 2, Marla insisted on joining daddy in his hobby as an amateur painter; the attractive, oddly sophisticated-looking results were hung in the family home. Eventually, they attracted attention from a friend who whimsically suggested they be hung in his coffee shop. Soon the Olmsteads were getting actual purchase offers. Then another family friend, professional artist Anthony Brunelli, proposed a mid-2004 formal show at his gallery.
A local newspaper story (by Elizabeth Cohen, a reporter on child/family issues who comments throughout pic) led to one in the New York Times — and the floodgates broke. Marla became the novelty story du jour in every magazine, on every TV show.
Collectors grew infatuated with her work (pricing as high as $25,000 per canvas), while art critics debated its worth, for the most part quite favorably.
Indeed, the vividly colored, often complex oils are astonishingly skilled, let alone for someone of Marla’s age. Was it even possible for a 4-year-old to operate at this level? A brief montage of other child prodigies (mostly classical musicians, though not excluding Shirley Temple) limns the longtime public fascination with such prodigies.
“60 Minutes” took that question seriously, stationing a surveillance camera (with parental consent) to observe Marla making one of her pictures. What they aired suggested Mark heavily directed her (he claimed it was an anomalous instance), and in any case, the canvas that resulted looked markedly less polished than her previous works — more like the painting of a precocious but unremarkable 4-year-old.
To the Olmsteads’ horror, the same outlets that had marveled over Marla’s gift now spread the word that she was probably a fake. The family insisted Mark didn’t collaborate on (let alone paint) the art in any way. Nonetheless, sales froze. A second video of Marla making a painting start-to-finish was made, winning her (and parents) a degree of vindication. But that piece, too, struck some — including the filmmaker — as suspiciously “less polished.”
Bar-Lev’s own doubts become a troubling focal point in film’s last laps, as he struggles with the “documentary gold” of possibly exposing a scam versus the genuine affection he’s developed for the seemingly ultra-sincere Olmsteads over a year’s time. He is, finally, unable to decide what really happened — and his ambivalence particularly pains Laura.
There’s also room in the pic for an intriguing discussion of the public’s hostility toward abstract art, which because it isn’t clearly representational and can resemble the freeform primitive art children make, has often been dismissed with the pic’s titular phrase. N.Y. Times critic Michael Kimmelman comments insightfully about this and related issues throughout.
On a human-drama level, the contrast between Laura’s concern that her kids experience too much too soon and Mark’s over-eagerness to grab every opportunity for exposure grows compelling. (Still, both parents do seem terribly nice.) And art dealer Brunelli, who changes attitude overnight when bad news hits, becomes an intriguingly less-than-sympathetic figure.
One of the few competition docs at Sundance this year (alongside “Zoo”) that’s as striking in its craftsmanship as in potent subject matter, “My Kid” has been put together with imagination and skill.