After this film premiered at Sundance 2010, Kyle Buchanan of Movieline wrote an article questioning the veracity of this documentary. When David Chen at Slashfilm.com talked about the movie in a September podcast, he and his colleagues argued that some manufacturing or manipulation may have been done on the part of the documentarians. What some suggest is that this movie may be somewhere between Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here and Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop, both released this year.
Catfish is about an eight-month experience in 2008 that New York City photographer Yaniv "Nev" Shulman had and that experience was a really interesting Facebook relationship. Without giving too much away, this story ultimately reminded me of a film that came out last winter called Easier With Practice. Except, instead of an old-school telephone, the bridge of choice here is made of emails and text messages.
Nev Shulman, who is in his early 20s, had one of his pictures published in the New York Sun. This picture captures the attention of an 8-year-old painter named Abby. Abby sends Shulman some paintings, or rather her mother Angela sends them, but Shulman appreciates them. Eventually, Shulman learns that Abby has a 19-year-old sister named Megan who becomes his Facebook friend. An online romance then develops between Shulman and Megan. Just as in Easier With Practice, the relationship ends when Shulman decides to meet Megan in person.
Despite the Movieline article, I don't doubt the truthiness of this movie. I accept it as real, based on the strength of the final 30 or 20 minutes. What happens is at once so powerful that it would seem crazy to have been faked, but something that raised an eyebrow to me was something that happened early in the movie and it's essentially the premise.
The two filmmakers who decide to make this movie about Nev Shulman, one of which is Shulman's brother, say that all they wanted was to document his relationship with Abby. There were several questions that ran through my mind. One was a question that Kyle Buchanan raised. To what end were they going to "document" this relationship? Where did the filmmakers think this would go?
A 20-something in New York was an electronic pen-pal to an 8-year-old in Michigan. If all of this was real and not faked, where did they think it would go? What did they hope to accompish? If it was to learn about the little girl, Shulman admits to never even talking to her. Also, by documenting it, what kind of movie did they think they would have? If documenting this relationship was all they intended, the most they would get is Shulman at his computer clicking on Facebook. That doesn't make for a very exciting film. Unless they knew what was going to happen in the second half of this movie, because they planned or perhaps scripted it, what did they really think they would get out of doing this movie initially.
They could be like Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop and they could simply enjoy videotaping things no matter how unnecessary, mundane and ridiculous. Even though it gets to a point where they focus on the flirtatious messages from Megan, they never set up or offer an explanation as to why Shulman was so interested.
Yes, the paintings from Abby are very good and talking to Megan, she sounds intriguing, but Shulman is young and handsome even with a retainer, and seems like a fun and interesting guy. It doesn't seem like he would have trouble finding a girlfriend in Manhattan. Did he just suffer a bad breakup? Does his work schedule prevent him from going out and meeting girls?
Shulman seems so easily taken by this online romance and I didn't really get why. Yes, he was single. She was beautiful and engaging. I suppose not more needed to be said, but it's indicative of the fact that we really don't get much of Shulman, outside his apartment or away from his computer or smart phone.
This movie is built on a lot of shots of computer screens, and what you see is mostly the websites, Google, YouTube, and Facebook. At least, the first half is built that way, and regardless of how I feel Shulman is presented, his journey does become quite compelling, especially by what is revealed in the second half.
Leading up to that reveal, Shulman's movie does draw you in thrilling ways, at times awkward, and then unfolds a human drama that may not be as hard-hitting as other Sundance documentaries such as Family Affair or Prodigal Sons, but it's enough to make this one of the best documentaries of 2010.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.