A man develops a relationship with a woman and her family in Catfish, a documentary.
At least, the filmmakers say it’s a documentary. And, yes, that first sentence might be the vaguest description ever. There is so much tangled truth and untruth in this strange movie that to start to untangle it is to run into spoilers. SPOILER ALERT from here on out. In fact, let’s agree that the deeper you go into the review, the more spoilery it will become.
Let’s start by saying this movie is definitely one worth seeing. It consistently does not go where you think it will, and surprises you with the fearlessness with which it approaches its subjects. Its main character, our proxy in this situation, is Yaniv Schulman, nicknamed Nev, the brother of one of the film’s two directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Nev allows himself to look silly, vulnerable and heartbroken but without it being indulgent. I don’t think they ever let a desire to make him look good interfere with telling the story.
The movie makes two big sudden turns. It starts off as something sweet, almost Pollyanna-ish about the way Nev and Rel (as Ariel is nicknamed) approach the central situation. Then, there is a sudden realization that things aren’t as they seem. In another movie, we might be approaching something similar to a horror film — in fact trailers for the movie seem to suggest that’s where we’re going. But then we take another turn, and the movie goes someplace far stranger. We are, if the movie is to be believed, looking into the psyche of a person and seeing the lies, hurt, frustration, deceit and longing.
Seriously now, SPOILER ALERT.
It is particularly fascinating to see this movie on the same day as seeing The Social Network, a connection that I am not the first to make and that the Facebook executives can’t be loving, but the juxtaposition of the two stories adds another layer to this movie. Nev, a photographer, receives in the mail a painting of a photo he took which ran in a New York newspaper. The painting flatters and intrigues him and starts up a friendship, formed almost entirely on Facebook, between Nev and Abby, a young girl who is credited with making the painting; Angela, her mother, who is also presented as an artist and a beauty, and Megan, Abby’s 19-year-old sister with whom Nev strikes up an even deeper yet still noncorporeal relationship. They text — and eventually sext — and talk on the phone and exchange photos. Megan, a beauty with a breathy voice, even sends him recordings of her singing. These pieces of Megan, and of her larger circle of friends and family, are made possible entirely by the new world of social networking. In an earlier age, she would have been a letter, a photograph, a phone call, maybe a cassette tape with voice on it. But now, she is immediate — he can see the house she lives in on Google maps, hear her sing songs he requests when she posts them on her Facebook page minutes later. He can gaze at her latest photos, seconds after she takes them, and see the listing for the space that her sister is planning to use as a gallery for her paintings.
It all exists — and yet, does it? It’s this question, of how online relationships relate to real-world relationships, that makes Catfish such a fascinating study.
What exactly is Catfish — suspense? Drama? A Movie For Our Times? This is the kind of movie worth not only seeing but seeing with a friend so you have someone to argue about it with later.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual reference. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Catfish is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed by Rogue Pictures.