Catfish is an odd name for a film and even odder for one about three men’s journey to get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding an 8-year-old painter, her beautiful mother, and even-more-beautiful sister. The men are Nev Schulman, his brother Ariel, and their friend, Henry Joost.
The three live together in New York where Nev makes his living as a photographer. One day a package arrives for Nev from Ishpeming, Michigan. In it is a painting of one of his photos, done by the 8-year-old Abby Pierce. Several other paintings follow while Nev and Abby strike up an acquaintance on Facebook.
Soon after he becomes friends with Abby’s mother Angela and her half-sister Megan. Nev eventually speaks to Angela and the oddly-deep-voiced Megan on the phone, but every time he calls, Abby always seems to be out.
The correspondence continues entirely through the Internet for several months, during which Nev strikes up a cyber-romance with Megan. But the mystery begins proper when Nev discovers that some of Megan’s song covers are ripped directly from YouTube, spurring him and his pals to take a trip to Michigan to meet the Pierce’s in person.
To reveal any more would be to spoil the movie, but suffice to say, things aren’t as they appear. I don’t consider that much of a spoiler as the advertising campaign for Catfish heavily implies that.
For those unaware, there’s a controversy surrounding the film’s authenticity. Catfish presents itself as a documentary, and despite the makers’ protests that it’s 100-percent true, I can understand the suspicion. Before seeing this film I’d read some about it, but my take was that the film was a mockumentary inspired by a true story. That’s not the standard misgiving, which is that a number of the scenes are at least staged if not altogether scripted, but even a casual filmgoer going into Catfish cold will likely suspect something’s up. For one, how would Nev and his friends have the prescience to film the story before knowing they even knew what was on their hands?
However, whether it’s true or not shouldn’t bear on the film itself. What matters is up there on screen and not in the Hollywood gossip columns. And Catfish, regardless, is entertaining and heartfelt. Nev, whether it’s a performance or not, is a charming character who provides the film with many funny moments (the scene where he wires himself for the first meeting with Angela and then performs a “test hug” to ensure that the equipment doesn’t poke through is one of the biggest laughs) and comes across as ultimately a well-intentioned (albeit naïve) kid.
Likewise, Ariel and Henry, the film’s directors, know when to ease up on the humor and supply moments of real tenderness. And seldom does it feel like they’re exploiting their subjects. The story they stumbled into is a compelling one, and they tell it well.
But Catfish is not without its flaws. For a film that lasts a scant 86 minutes, several scenes—among them the reveal that Megan’s songs are bogus and the ending—had me glancing toward my wrist and reminding me that I need to get a watch. The excessive use of digital media—close-ups of one’s relationship status on Facebook, inclusion of YouTube’s recommended videos, following the trio’s journey on MapQuest, the GPS… —also feels forced. None of them add to the story, so when they do appear it feels tacked on and awkward.
The moral of not trusting everything you see posted on the Internet is not especially deep and feels shoehorned into the film, particularly when the title is explained, when the directors would be better served to simply let the story unfold. Added to that is the use of multiple cameras of varying quality. Scenes shift from shaky to grainy to clear and stable and back again. Whether intentional or not, it’s equally jarring.
Still, Catfish holds up. Deserved or not, the controversy surrounding it may in fact become its strongest selling point—hopefully it won’t overshadow the viewer’s enjoyment of this fun little film.