Review: Life and Art Commingle in the Documentary 'Catfish'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 17, 2010
I implore you not to read this review for Catfish if you have not yet seen the film. Skip down to the bottom and glance at my rating if you want to know my underlying opinion of the film. It's not that I'm going to get into any major spoilers; I would never do that, not even for something as prefigured as Titanic. However, there are certain films that must be seen fresh, that need to be experienced without the slightest inclination as to what's going to happen. Often times our preconceived notions lead to overblown expectations of a film, especially one with a back half as open as in Catfish. But let's get to the front before we move to the back.
Catfish (watch the trailer) is a documentary about three men, two of them brothers. New York film makers, they are always looking for their next project, and one of the brothers, Ariel "Rel" Schulman, begins documenting his brother, Nev's, long-distance correspondence with an 8-year-old girl, Abby, and the eventual Facebook relationship he begins with her older sister, Megan.
It's hard to divulge much of what happens beyond that, but it is safe to say Catfish is not a film that settles on being about a long distance relationship. It's with this set up that two things occur. One, the first 20 minutes or so are kind of humdrum. There is a sense of dread about it that tells you something completely unconventional is right around the corner, but it never outweighs the feeling that we are just watching a guy chatting with a girl over Facebook. That leads into the second element about it.
Catfish seems absolutely genuine. There is very little reason to look at this film as a Blair Witch or Waiting for Guffman-style mockumentary instead of what the Schulman and fellow co-director Henry Joost claim it to be. Having said that, it is a little difficult to get into that mind-set from where the film begins. Why is Rel documenting this relationship if he has no indication something is wrong. When we begin, everything is copacetic between Nev and Megan. We feel a sense of dread, because we're watching a movie we know isn't going to turn out the way life anticipates. Something has to happen to make a film being shot worthwhile, and, where Catfish begins, we don't get deserved sense of narrative.
Beyond that, though, Catfish is wholly satisfying and an incredibly fascinating look at the sharp left turns we might face in life. The brothers are invited to Colorado to film a ballet group. It is there they begin to discover unsettling things about Megan, Abby, and their family. It begins somewhat lighthearted, and, though Nev is clearly unnerved by what he finds, the sense of the relationship slamming into a brick wall doesn't present itself right at first. More and more piles up, and the three filmmakers decide to head to Michigan to confront Megan.
It's this last half of Catfish that clenches you, that brings real life into focus and lets us in on a very unnerving yet absolutely captivating story of identity. What Rel, Nev, and Henry find in Michigan presents all the emotions that make up a life. It's partially funny, it's partially scary, and, when everything comes to light, it's incredibly sad. The final 30 minutes or so might unnerve some, and it might have some clamoring for the sweet release of unintentional laughter. I found it extremely effective in the way it analyzes life and art and the way the two begin to mingle.
The two aren't oil and water. One can seep into the other so very easily, and it is instances like the notion of Abby literally putting parts of herself (a hair strand or a bit of saliva) into her paintings that lead me to believe a much greater arc was being reached for by the film makers involved. Life moves into art. Art moves into life, and the two do it so effortlessly that often times we don't realize what is occurring.
That higher message is achieved whether it was intended from outset or not, but Catfish reveals other, deeper meanings beyond the preparation you must make for those hard, left turns life presents to you. There's a cautionary message about the way we conduct ourselves online, this idea that we throw so much information out into the world, and we should never be quite sure what it is we are getting back in return. At least, we should never be comfortable in it. Catfish analyzes all of this, and it does so with effortless nuance, something only real life can often achieve. We should never be sure of anything, because you never know when life or art is going to swoop down from the rafters and carry it away. Catfish, real or not in the story it tells, is unsettling in this aspect, and there is nothing more true to life than that.
Jeremy's Rating: 8.5 out of 10