This could be the hardest review I write at Sundance. Not because I have nothing to say about the movie – rather I have a ton to say about the movie, but because almost all of it is about the movie’s second half it would be nothing but nuclear spoilers.
Don’t let the terrible title (explained in the last five minutes of the film) throw you off - Catfish is a great documentary, and one that is completely of the moment. New York City photographer Nev Schulman has a photo printed in the New York Sun (pictured here); three months later he gets a painting of that photo in the mail. The very good painting is by an 8 year old girl named Abby Pierce who lives in Michigan. 24-year old hipstery Nev begins a Facebook friendship with this little girl, who keeps sending him more paintings and prints. His brother, Rel and their friend Henry Joost begin documenting Nev’s friendship with the girl, which soon grows to include friendships with her mother, Angela, and her older sister, Megan. And the friendship with Megan blooms into something else as Nev and the beautiful musician and vet spend hours on the phone, sexting (finally, an opportunity to use that word!) and maybe even falling in love.
Then something happens that begins to cast doubt on everything and Nev and Rel and Henry take a roadtrip to Michigan to meet the Pierces. What happens next is… well, I’m not telling. You have to see for yourself.
Catfish begins as a very funny film, especially because for many of us the idea of a long distance internet relationship is all too familiar. There’s a very specific weirdness to getting ‘involved’ with someone you haven’t met, and Nev shows all the symptoms. But at the same time there’s that sneaking suspicion that something is probably wrong with this person, and you wonder who it really is that you’re chatting with on the other side of the screen.
What’s especially interesting about the first half of the movie is the proliferation of gadgets in the lives of these three friends. I think there’s a certain generation that just wouldn’t understand Nev’s situation, and it’s the people who missed out on the gadget revolution. The film’s geography is explained with Google Maps and GPS screens, there are laptops and endless Google and YouTube searches. Nev’s photos are all digital, a complete contrast to Abby’s physical paintings. That contrast follows through in the second half of the film in so many ways… none of which I can talk about.
It’s incredibly frustrating. The second half of Catfish is what raises the movie into something more than a snarky doc. These three, at first, seem to have little self-awareness, but by the end I think they show incredible respect and humanity towards a person or people who could have been villainized or turned into jokes. Three obviously well off New Yorkers – two of them the fuzziest Jews you’ll ever see – don’t approach the midwest with scorn or condescension. There’s sweetness and understanding and the search for a common ground. There’s so much more, all that I want to pore over in detail, so much subtext, so many contrasts, so many weird things that are only possible in an ultrawired world, but you have to see this movie as clean as possible. I fear I’ve already said too much, and that would be a disservice.
There’s no doubt that Catfish is getting picked up – it’s got a whole bunch of bids on the table right now – and I bet it makes its way to a theater near you (or a VOD channel) very soon. Keep this one in mind, even with the truly awful title.
9 out of 10