One of the reasons that “Catfish” succeeds so well as a “reality thriller” (the term the studio is using to market it) is that it abandons the typical documentary style for a first-person as-it-happens feel that’s actually closer to a fictional film.
That means there are no direct-address interviews with the subjects and no historical footage for context. Everything happens just as it happened, right in front of the camera.
It’s hard to review this movie without revealing too much of the mystery that is at its core, but I’m going to do just that. In fact, I would recommend that you try hard not to read too much about the movie or see a trailer before you see it, because the film relies so heavily on the “you are there” discovery.
“Catfish,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, will certainly challenge viewers in their acceptance of filmic truth in documentaries. But, more importantly, “Catfish” is an extremely well-told and engaging story. Whether bits of the movie involved the young filmmakers pretending to not know as much as they actually knew at certain points (which I think is very plausible), the film has a firm grasp on what makes compelling drama.
Schulman’s brother Nev is a photographer and, if you believe the setup of the movie, Ariel has been filming him all of his life because interesting things just happen to him. When an 8-year old painter named Abby in Michigan strikes up a Facebook friendship with Nev after replicating one of his photos, Ariel and Henry start filming everything that happens next from Nev’s point of view.
What happens is that Nev and Abby’s older sister Megan meet online and become very close over the next nine months. They talk on the phone, trade sexual innuendos through online chats, and he sends Megan postcards. Then things start to get fishy.
Without revealing too much–here’s the crux of the story: learning what Nev and his pals learn AS they learn it turns out to be as perfectly plotted as any great thriller. As the mystery deepens, we are priveleged enough to see the actual footage of doubt and discovery. That is why “Catfish” is so thrilling. It isn’t a horror movie, despite what its trailer may lead you to believe, but it does contain actual moments of great suspense–which depend on your acceptance of the events you are witnessing being real.
Whether every scene that contains a revelation actually occurred on camera is the subject of much debate. Were there scenes that were staged to get these pivotal points across? At the least, I’ll bet that the filmmakers went back and shot some introductory scenes later, after the plot had thickened, to make sure the doc stayed within its stylistic format.
Here’s a question I pose at this point then: Has the general acceptance of “reality TV” being as fake and scripted as a fictional show eroded our standards for documentaries? I can answer that with an unequivocal “yes.”
But–let’s stop and consider that documentaries have contained recreations and fakery since their inception.
Ariel and Henry are aware that their motives may not be pure, though, and there are a couple of scenes after he learns some things aren’t adding up where Nev tells the directors that he’s not comfortable in continuing an investigation of Megan. He does so under objection and for the sake of their movie.
This rings true because in our media-saturated world, the desire to be a part of something like this may be too great to resist–or Nev may have felt like he was living out a movie. I’m sure he felt an obligation to his brother and friend at least. In addition, when Nev later gets angry and just wants answers, it feels real.
Whether this tech-savvy trio of guys had done a Google search before that scene appears in the movie is unknown. Why? Because its not in the movie. But it is plausible that portable video technology would enable key moments to be captured as easily as they seem to have been.
One interesting note is that this movie was produced by Andrew Jarecki, who directed the fascinating documentary “Capturing the Friedmans,” where a troubled family’s very personal home movies form the backbone of the story.
Now, it’s back to the statement I made at the beginning of this review: The film has a firm grasp on what makes compelling drama.
The naiveté of the filmmakers can be debated forever, but “Catfish” is a thrill to watch. It also says some important things about online relationships and privacy, our current on-camera obsessed culture, and it wraps up with a poignancy that I wasn’t prepared for. In short, its engaging stuff. Which is more than I can say for “I’m Still Here.”
For more, read Is “Catfish” Real or Fake? Answers to Questions…