Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:26

Release Date: 9/17/10 (limited); 9/24/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 23, 2010

We trust what we see online. People believe that Wikipedia is a legitimate source. Some think everything on the Internet is free to be used for their personal gain. The act of discovering lies, plagiarism, deception, and all kinds of fraud can all come down to a mere accident. We weren't looking into what a person says they do or wrote or performed, because we trust people at face value.

Catfish is a cautionary tale for the Internet society. Do not take things at face value and also realize that face value comes in phases. For the skeptic, there is always something beneath the surface, and it's another surface above yet another. In the online realm, where people may or may not be who they say they are, it is vital that everyone is a skeptic.

A professor of mine once said, to be a good journalist, when your mother says she loves you, question it. In the age of social networking sites, when your mother writes she loves you on your Facebook wall, question if that's actually your mother. And update your privacy settings accordingly.

Nev Schulman learns some of these unfortunate truths out of seemingly innocent beginnings. He's a photographer, specializing in stills of dancers at work. One of his photos is published in the New York Times, much to his delight and that of a seven-year-old girl named Abby in northern Michigan. Abby mails him a painting she made replicating his photograph.

Nev's office is in New York City, and he shares space with his brother Ariel and mutual friend Henry Joost. Ariel and Henry are filmmakers, find Nev's relationship with the young, budding artist fascinating, and start filming.

Abby sends Nev more of her paintings. They become friends on Facebook. Soon, he's calling Abby's house and talking with her mother Angela. They become friends on Facebook, and it avalanches. He starts sending friend requests to the rest of the family, including Angela's husband Vince and older daughter Megan. Megan's friends start sending him messages. Her brother writes a private message to Nev warning him not to take advantage of his older sister. Angela writes on her son's wall to stay out of things.

This is the point of social networking sites, to clone the experience of real interaction with some keystrokes and the click of a mouse button—no personal contact necessary. People type things they might not say in real life, but there they are, perhaps for the world to see. Once it's out there, it'll probably never disappear entirely.

If one takes a moment to think about that scenario—and Schulman and Joost's film really, truly does allow us to ponder it in montages of back-and-forth messages, tagged photographs, text messages, and e-mails—it is quite humbling and particularly frightening. Nev is an ideal subject for their investigation. He is embarrassed by some things he's written but is willing to own up to them. He reads for the camera a texting session that becomes a terrible, cheesy parody of eroticism, ducking under the covers for the more humiliating bits. He says he doesn't want to participate in the film, and yet Megan's cover version of a song sounds a lot like one he finds while searching for the lyrics.

Something is amiss with Megan that he cannot deny any further than hearing yet another song she claims to have recorded with her brother but is the same recording that is the first hit he finds on YouTube. He is hurt and open to admitting it. He liked this girl he never met face-to-face; he thought she felt the same way. He's only seen her picture in her Facebook profile, but he really believed he knew her. It's an incredibly real betrayal from an entirely counterfeit experience.

Nev's musical discovery is only the second layer of the film's mystery, which seems to be heading in one direction before making a U-turn with a few more revelations. Nev, Ariel, and Henry have the right personalities for the inquiry into the truth behind Abby, Angela, and Megan. They are curious but cautious, not only for the potential dangers for themselves that could arise from digging too deep but also in realizing there might be unnecessary pain from cutting too deep into another person's life.

The trio of detectives does arrive at Abby's home. The instinct is to run, and they do not. Whatever Nev's motivation for staying, whether right or wrong, there is a story of social importance and specific heartbreak there. Schulman, Joost, and editor Zachary Stuart-Pointer assemble the footage so that Nev's trip through the levels of trickery is immediate and urgent.

Catfish is an engrossing, timely tale and one that surveys the humanity of its subjects while picking away the dishonesty. The fraud barely even ends, and just to give us a taste of what Nev endured, a few more facts are revealed at the coda. We have been duped, our emotions have been betrayed, and yet there is truth in the lie: That it's a falsehood, why it was told, and who said it.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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