Unreal Movie Review: Catfish

Catfish, perhaps known to you as that other social networking movie, is one of the more powerful documentaries released in the past few years.  And yes, it is indeed a true documentary (do not click on this link unless you’re fine with spoilers), which seems so hard to believe considering how tightly everything fits together.  Whereas many themes of the dangers of forming relationships over the Internet are present, at its core, Catfish is a moving tale about people and the lengths they will go to for the sake of being noticed.  Fincher’s The Social Network will presumably have the world buzzing, but Catfish is a film that may be just as relevant.

Nev Schulman is a young, attractive New York City photographer who begins a relationship with an eight-year-old girl named Abby in Michigan when she sends him a painting she did of one of his photographs.  And no, it’s nothing pedophilic – it’s a totally healthy, fun interaction with a girl who enjoyed a photograph Nev took.  Anyway, Nev’s brother Ariel and their friend Henry continuously document Nev and Abby’s virtual relationship (of course they “friend” each other on Facebook), and before long, Abby is sending Nev packages from Michigan containing her quite impressive paintings.  For an eight-year-old, or even for an adult, Abby is a good artist.  Soon enough, Nev befriends Abby’s mother, Angela, and Abby’s very attractive older half-sister, Megan.  Nev has never met these people, but thanks to the Internet, he’s able to maintain a relationship with them; they contact each other on a daily basis.

Megan and Nev continue their virtual relationship – all filmed by Ariel and Henry – and before long are referring to each other as “babe” and sending each other naughty text messages.  They speak on the phone, too, and it’s clear that Nev, although he is hesitant to start a real relationship with someone he’s technically never met, always enjoys speaking to Megan.  You can see Nev’s joy on screen, and Catfish is filled with genuinely sweet, funny, and even terrifying moments.

Things soon turn strange, however, and not because Megan seems a bit clingy.  No, Megan fancies herself a singer/songwriter and sends Nev recordings she’s made herself.  But Nev, Ariel, and Henry, with the help of some quick Internet and YouTube searches, discover that Megan isn’t the one who actually recorded these songs.  Nev is a nice, understanding guy and doesn’t want to call out Megan for this discrepancy, but he cannot hide his frustration at being deceived.  And Megan’s not the only one whose claims don’t jive with reality – it turns out that a building in Michigan Abby claims to have turned into a studio for her artwork has been empty for years.  Nev and the guys realize that something strange is going on and, lucking into a work trip to Vail, Colorado, make the decision to drive to Michigan for a surprise visit to see Angela, Abby, and Megan.

What they find, as you may have predicted, is what Catfish is all about.

I don’t want to spoil what is, in essence, the entire crux of the film, so you’ll have to see for yourself.  As this is a documentary, you know that it’s nothing supernatural and, as it’s real, it’s nothing contrived or cliched.  Nev’s discovery takes him from anger to sympathy back to anger to a sort of friendship when it’s all said and done, and the circumstances which Nev enters are not black and white.  Rather, it’s a lot of gray area, and there’s no real right or wrong as to the morality of it all.

Nev’s discovery – in addition to being a warning about the vapidity that is social networking – is a poignant one, and it has stayed with me long after I had finished watching Catfish.  That’s a high compliment for an unscripted documentary, and Catfish deserves it – it’s one of the most thought-provoking films about real people that I’ve seen in quite some time.  See for yourself; you won’t be disappointed.

Not everyone thinks Catfish is “all the way” real, however – you can read Kyle Buchanan’s take on it here, but that link is spoiler-heavy.  Totally real or not, though, Catfish is a great film.

4 out of 5 stars

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