In 2007, New York photographer Nev Schulman began receiving paintings of his pictures done by a young girl named Abby who lived in Minnesota. Nev begins an odd friendship with Abby, her mother Angela, and eventually Abby's sister, Megan, communicating by email, Facebook, and phone. Angela claims Abby's paintings have made her a local celebrity and the partnership Nev and Abby have seems to be potentially profitable for both of them. Before long, Nev is in a long distance relationship with Megan and fully integrated into the life of this little family. Some strange events, however, lead him to believe that this family isn't all they claim to be and he begins to dig into the stories they've told him, all while his roommate and filmmaker Rel Schulman rolls tape.
When Nev and Rel get to Minnesota, they find Angela to be a lonely woman who lives vicariously through many fake identities on Facebook. She has a daughter named Abby but Abby shows no indication of any interest in painting. She also has a husband, two stepsons with severe handicaps, and a step daughter named Megan who is somehow estranged from the family. Unable to handle the mediocre circumstances of her real life, Angela created an entirely new world with multiple cell phones, stolen pictures, and a host of Facebook profiles. It is one of the saddest existences that you can imagine in our modern age.
I don't really know how to classify "Catfish" or how to evaluate it. I guess I could include it in the Documentary Project but I don't believe it to be a true documentary. How much of this film is real and how much is fallacy is truthfully known only to the filmmakers but there's no question in my mind that some, if not most, of "Catfish" is play for the camera. From a film standpoint, it's more than a decent effort. The camerawork is good and the narrative is undeniably compelling and entertaining. But documentaries are held to a different standard than other films; they must also provide the truth (or at least some version of the truth) of a real life story. And where "Catfish" ceases to be truth is unclear.
Here's what I believe. I believe that at some point before the cameras started rolling, Angela took a liking to Nev and his photos and sent him a painting or two, posing as Abby. I believe Nev was intrigued by this family and began a correspondence with them. And I believe within a matter of days he guessed what was happening and decided he was sitting on a goldmine. Perhaps he and Rel discovered the full truth before the camera was turned on or perhaps they really did uncover new facts as they went along, but regardless, this guy knew what was happening long before they set out to make a "documentary." There are far too many holes in their story to believe that two seemingly intelligent and technologically savvy New Yorkers did absolutely no research, no background checks on Angela's story, despite the fact that Nev was entering into a relationship with Megan. It doesn't hold up, at least not in this day and age; maybe at the beginning of the internet era but not in 2007, not in the Google age, and certainly not for these guys.
And in my opinion, the way that they exposed this poor woman, the sly way in which they simultaneously humiliated and flattered her, makes Nev and Rel utterly repulsive human beings. "Catfish" is exploitation of the highest order. I think the worst part is a scene in which, after confirming their suspicions about the family, Nev, Rel, and their pal Henry put on a show for the camera (or perhaps their own consciences) talking about how they felt the need to confront Angela about her lies "for her own good" but to do so in a way that wouldn't humiliate her. The slick, shrewd manner in which they play these lines off positively oozes with a demented tone of getting away with something, of pulling a fast one on a parent or teacher. It's a twisted, even sadistic game Nev and Rel play in "Catfish" and it was enough to make my stomach turn. I must give them credit for making their film so engrossing as to keep me (and I would guess many others) around despite the nausea their actions created, but at the end of the day, these guys would be ashamed of themselves if they weren't arrogant, soulless jackholes.
Grade If Authentic: B+
Grade As Is: F