Directed by Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost
As much as I loved The Social Network, there was an aspect of the film that I felt was missing. It's not a film's fault if it doesn't address the concepts that I wanted it to address, but it can cause a viewer to feel a bit empty when you hope for something that never comes. I was hoping the film would discuss the more dangerous aspects of Facebook, its leading to the downfall of true identity. Secret lives are now created all over the internet, using various Facebook-like social networking sites. We delude ourselves into thinking that we know more people then ever before, but the quality of our "knowing" has now depreciated because of Facebook, and I hoped that the "Facebook movie" would ponder a bit on that. Instead, we got a film about a young man trying to find a way to impress and win back a girl he briefly dated. And that film was exceptional, even though it wasn't what I wanted. Catfish, on the other hand, gave me exactly what I asked for.
**Before I write anything, I should probably say that most of the charm of Catfish comes from the absolute shock of the events that unfold. The more you know about the elements behind it, the less the film will reach its fullest effect. So, I feel its my responsibility to tell you that if you plan on going to see the film and truly enjoy it, you should go in with a blank slate. This may mean that my review here may be detrimental to that. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers that could harm the intended reaction of the film, but if you are spoiler-phobic (and there are many of you), feel free to leave now and come back after you've seen the film so we can discuss.** Now, that the housekeeping is finished, I'll continue.
When photographer Yaniv Schulman is sent a painting of one of his published photos by an eight-year-old painter named Abby, he's astounded by how good the work is. Yaniv and Abby begin an open correspondence over email, and Abby begins sending him numerous painted copies of his photographs. This captures the eye of filmmakers Ariel Schulman (Yaniv's older brother) and Henry Joost, and they decide to film Yaniv as his relationship with the young girl begins to blossom. They film as Yaniv keeps getting paintings, but then Yaniv gets a chance to speak to Abby's mother Angela, who is just as surprised as everyone else with her daughter's brilliant gift in art. Yaniv becomes friends with Angela on Facebook.
As Yaniv continues his transactions with Abby, he gets deeper into her family. On Facebook, he becomes friends with Abby's father Vince, her brother Ryan and several other cousins and family friends, including her half-sister Megan. Megan sends Yaniv personal messages thanking him for his interest in her little sister, and soon she is actually sending him flirtatious text messages and having long conversations with him over the phone. But (for reasons I won't explain here) Megan's actions begin to become more and more suspicious, leaving Yaniv, Ariel and Henry to question the peculiar nature of this cyber-family. Frustrated and confused, Yaniv takes Ariel and Henry with him to Abby's home in Michigan to confront Megan and Angela on their strange behavior. What they uncover upon their arrival is something that is as astonishing as it is heartbreaking, proving how little they knew about Abby's family after all.
We live in a climate of cynicism, and in the era of Joaquin Phoenix's disastrous coup I'm Still Here, that cynicism has spilled into the world of documentary cinema. But whether or not Catfish really is 100% legitimate doesn't really effect my response to the film, because what it says about our society is incredibly potent and effective either way. As The Social Network explains expertly, all of Facebook's popularity is based upon people trying to get closer to other people they're sexually attracted to. It's voyeurism that's legal because we put ourselves out there to be spied on. There are people who live their entire lives on Facebook, but there is also a more ominous minority, whose lives are Facebook. Catfish is about that minority, and the dangerous nature of developing relationships with people within that minority. You never know what's going to come out in reality.
I could probably praise the filmmaking of Schulman and Joost, but what's great about Catfish has very little to do with them. If anything, the film does a good job of showing that their fear came very close to sabotaging their own uncovering. It's the people in front of the camera that really fascinate us. As I sat in the theater, there were many people who chuckled at some of the experiences in the film. This was not an indulged laughter coming from something funny in the movie, but a chuckle bubbling up from a brewing storm of discomfort welling inside of them. Facebook has totally sucked in most of the country (and, I can only assume, a lot of the world), and a lot of the attraction comes from the ability to act cryptically in a way that we haven't been allowed to before. I've got a feeling that more people can relate to Yaniv's complex online relationship than I'd like to think about.
I really feel that documentary cinema has been at its peak in the last decade, thanks to guys like Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, and Charles Ferguson, who have imbued the usually sterile genre with real heart, passion and (that dirty word) bias. This film was produced by Andrew Jarecki, the man behind one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen, Capturing The Friedmans, that excelled because it repelled the oncoming style of making documentaries more cinematic. In Alex Gibney's and Michael Moore's films, they are the stars. In Catfish and Friedmans, their subjects are the stars, and their lives are so interesting and at times depraved and shocking. Closer to Terry Zwigoff's masterpiece Crumb. Now, I won't go as far as to call Catfish a masterpiece, since there are times when it takes its own technological wrinkle and overexposes its own cuteness. But it is relevant and it is good. I think more people will go see Catfish as opposed to most documentaries, but I'm not sure too many will learn the lesson. That lesson that was missing in The Social Network.