What inspires a Michigan-based 8-year-old girl to paint a photograph from the New York Sun, why does she reach out online to the guy who took it, and where could that connection possibly lead? “Catfish” may seem a crazy thing to call a film intent on tackling these questions, but once the explanation comes, the title not only fits, but serves to christen an increasingly common 21st-century social phenom (move over, “cougars,” there’s a new predator in town!). Documenting in tantalizing detail the twist-filled true story of a young man fooled by Facebook, the pic should easily hook domestic crowds.
Until now, the movies have been fairly clumsy in their depiction of online behavior. There’s no telling how long it took Hollywood to develop its spinning-newspaper motif, but no one has yet cracked an equivalent idiom for email, instant messages and so on. “Catfish” presents one possible solution, quick-cutting between screens and even animating street and satellite views from Google Maps to suggest visual energy. After all, what is the Web if not a research tool, and here, helmers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman innovate a style that effectively mirrors the emotional state of “e-stalking.”
Sure enough, “Catfish” confirms your worst suspicions about virtual relationships, but it also reveals with surprising sensitivity some of the psychology behind those deceptions — not that Joost and Schulman knew what they were doing when they started out. With support from “Capturing the Friedmans” producers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, “Catfish” came about in a similar way, as a potentially dull nonfiction subject took on unexpected, even disturbing new dimensions by pushing the story past everyone’s comfort limits.
In this case, because the two video-savvy directors insist on documenting everything, cameras were present from the very beginning when Yaniv (or “Nev,” Schulman’s 24-year-old brother) started to receive paintings from Abby Pierce. Any parent would immediately recognize that the art, while crude, was too complex to be the work of an 8-year-old, yet Nev and company are wonderfully naive (one of the pic’s charms is that it doesn’t try to save face, letting the mystery unfold as it did in real life).
Does Abby really exist? At first, the only person Nev can reach by phone is Abby’s mother, Angela, though enticing party-girl photos of big sis Megan on Facebook swiftly lead to hot and heavy conversations between Nev and the overeager 19-year-old (who records songs for him by request). With cameras rolling the whole time, Nev’s crush on Megan grows strong enough to compel a cross-country trip to meet the entire Pierce family, which is nothing like he expected.
At the risk of revealing too much, “Catfish” goes far deeper than simply exploring “My Kid Could Paint That”-esque questions about art prodigies, with the narrative eventually shaping up more like a repeat occurrence of “The Night Listener” for the Internet age. It’s infinitely more satisfying, however, in that auds actually get to witness Nev go through the stages of infatuation, doubt, anger and betrayal, topped off with a surprisingly sympathetic resolution.
Though editor Zac Stuart-Pontier assembles the sprawling personal journey into swift and suspenseful shape, it helps immensely that Nev is such a charming screen presence. Pic might have provided a bit more insight into how he coped with confronting the truth about his pen pals — just one of the many unanswered questions that make this tale so intriguing.