In the months since it first set off a bidding war between studios at Sundance, Catfish has found itself under heavy scrutiny. Once described as a groundbreaking documentary, it now finds itself being called to the carpet to answer the question if it is a documentary at all, or is it all staged. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, however. First, I must tell you a little about the story. Yes, I know that the whole ad campaign thus far has been, “Don’t let anyone tell you anything,” but I think that’s both silly and impossible. At some point, you’re going to run into someone that is going to tell you at least the same as I am about to.
Catfish tells the story of Nev Schulman, a young photographer living in New York with his brother Ariel and filmmaker friend Henry Joost. One day in the mail, Nev receives a package from an eight year old girl in rural Michigan named Abby Pierce. Abby explains that she saw one of Nev’s photos in a magazine, really liked it, and painted a picture of it, which she has included in the package. It turns out that Abby is an art prodigy. Nev develops a friendship with members of Abby’s family over the telephone and Facebook, including her mother Angela, and her beautiful older sister Megan.
Now, here’s where the film gets a little tricky. As Nev and Megan begin an online and phone long distance relationship, Ariel and Henry begin filming the nightly conversations for a documentary on relationships in the 21st century. I have brothers and I have friends. They would have been saving themselves a lot of trouble if they would have just admitted from the start, “Yes, we cut on the cameras every time he called this girl because we were being jerks.”
Everyone in the family is an artist of one kind or another, and Megan is an accomplished singer and musician. During one chat session while on a business trip, Nev requests that she cover “Tennessee Stud“. 30 minutes later, she sends an MP3 file of a beautiful acoustic version of the song. A few minutes later, the guys are discussing other songs she has covered and start randomly playing versions of the songs online. Suddenly, they start finding the same versions she had been sending them, only under other artists names.
I’m going to stop there. If I continue much further, I really will start giving too much away. I believe the filmmakers when they say that nothing was staged for the film. I don’t believe they had the resources available to pull this film off if it had been imagined. For a documentary that leans heavily toward comedy, there are a couple of scenes that are quiet reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. As far as the hype that the film received on the festival circuit, well, that’s what the festivals are for, right? Don’t believe everything that your hear? This is a fine little film, but there’s no need to rush right out and be the first one in the door Friday night for it. As a matter of fact, I would like to recommend an overlooked documentary from last year with a similar story. Talhotblond is available at your local Redbox for a buck and is well worth it. Rent it tonight and the next time someone mentions Catfish you can yawn and say, “Oh, people are still talking about that? We watched…”