The common understanding of a review is that it is written for an audience that has not yet seen whatever piece of work you’re examining. A critique is the term that would be applied to something that discusses a piece from a place of mutual familiarity. Catfish, a film about online relationships, begs to be critiqued, its potent themes appraised, its impeccable structure scrutinized, but it is a film that shrinks from any sort of in-depth review. This is not because the film collapses if you know where it ends up- I’m certain Catfish will remain a funny, touching, and thought-provoking documentary on second viewing. The problem is that to reveal the mystery in a review is to rob a first time viewer of the uncomfortable joy of discovery, from a film that is largely about that very thing. With that in mind, I’ll attempt to give a clear idea what makes it so special without telling you what makes it so special.

Catfish centers around Nev Schulman, a photographer who lives with two filmmakers; his brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost, in New York. When a photograph of Nev’s appears in a national publication, an 8-year-old named Abby notices it and sends Nev a painting replicating his piece.  Connecting over Facebook, Nev develops a relationship with the talented young girl, and soon after with her entire family. Abby’s older sister Megan catches Nev’s eye and the two start forming a romantic bond across hundreds of miles via hundreds of texts messages.

The first thing you may notice about Catfish is that it resembles a patchwork quilt of digital media sources. The opening credits play over macro-photography shots of computer screens that blow up each pixel (the threads of the quilt) to a discernible size, creating a beautiful optical pattern. The film itself is shot on everything from high-grade digital movie cameras to camera phones with the resolution of a Connect Four game. Audio is often recorded out of speakerphones and earbuds with the microphones of camcorders. Not only does the sound and video capture-quality vary wildly, but a significant portion of the film is close-up shots of computer screens as they zoom through Google Earth, Youtube, search results, Facebook, photo galleries, online maps, iTunes, Final Cut Pro, and probably a dozen other applications and web services. This filmmakers seem to keyboard shortcut their way through the film, as if it is a browser window stuffed with dozens of tabs, each with their own contribution to the narrative. More than one scene revolves around the crew huddled over their laptops at a communal table, frenetically pounding on the keyboard, dashing out Google searches with less effort than a blink. While the pace of the film is by no means frenetic, it does take on that energy, and possesses the freedom to dash out whatever map, video, or bit of text is necessary to express a thought or make a transition. In this way, the experience of the film itself is directly linked with the subject of the film.

So what happens? Well, here is where it gets tricky to discuss, and the plot descriptions must grow more vague. As you might expect, Nev begins to have suspicions that the family with which he has exchanged gifts, shared pictures, and even spoken to on the phone may have manipulated the way they’ve presented themselves.  Small holes begin to form in the stories and the Facebook posts, even though 8 months of interaction has proven that there are legitimate people behind the pixels. Prodded by his filmmaking buddies, Nev keeps up the relationship and uses a work trip as an excuse to investigate his online friends more closely. Ultimately, what they find at the end of a long digital chain is something very human, very personal.

Any twist or revelation about the film wouldn’t amount to much if it weren’t for the efficient manner with which the film introduces you to the players involved. It is Nev’s emotional journey that we become invested in, and it’s a combination of effective filmmaking and outright charm that allow this to happen. Nev is a handsome, funny young guy who ultimately carries an entire film, half the runtime of which is composed of shots shoved so far into his face the poor camcorders can’t even manage focus. What makes the film such a joy to watch is how effectively the patchwork filmmaking sells Nev’s emotional investment in this online situation. Sometimes we need to see Nev’s out-of-focus smile from 3 inches away, sometimes we need to see the emoticon at the end of a text, and sometimes we need to see a full-quality, well composed shot of him seemingly swallowed up by a big room. That is perhaps my favorite aspect of Catfish- the way it uses a fractured, multi-media presentation to bring us closer to a person. The pieces may be created with whichever of the half-dozen video-capable devices they possessed that was closest at the moment, but the puzzle was assembled with as much care and consideration of human feelings as it would be with any other great documentary.

Catfish is being released in environment where several
meta-documentaries of dubious authenticity are causing controversy, and
regarding that point I’ll say this; whether or not Catfish is a
documentary, or a staged story told in the style of one is completely
irrelevant. From the first to the last frame, Catfish is an impeccably delivered story, the themes of which are pure, even if the film is not. What you should sit down knowing about Catfish are these things; it’s a documentary that nearly all of us can relate to on one level or another, it’s well told in an original fashion, and it has powerful things to say and important thoughts to provoke about what kind of age we’re living in.

9 out of 10

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