Catfish Review (SPOILERS)

Catfish

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish is probably one of the most talked about documentaries of the year, and with good reason. The film weaves a calculated mystery that makes for an intense theatre going experience. It’s only upon reflection that you start to question how such a perfect story unfolded in front of the cameras of a few New York City filmmakers.

When photographer Nev Schulman becomes wrapped up in an online relationship with a beautiful model named Meghan, his brother and a friend — both filmmakers — decide to document what they thought would be an example of a perfect internet romance. It all started with a series of paintings — inspired by Nev’s photography — that were apparently done by an 8 year old girl named Abby. After exchanging some emails and texts, Nev introduces himself to Abby’s Mother, Angela, and eventually adds her 19 year old sister, Meghan, on Facebook. They flirt back and forth online and quickly — maybe too quickly — become infatuated with each other, dreaming of the day when they might finally have a chance to meet face to face. One absolutely ridiculous moment finds Nev photoshopping Meghan into one of his photos, titling the file ‘Someday’. This is either an example of sincere, unhinged crushing or heavy handed, clumsy storytelling; you be the judge.

Questions soon arise when Meghan sends Nev a number of songs — supposedly her own — that, after a quick Google search, are revealed to have been performed by other people. When confronted through an instant message chat, she insists the performances are genuine. Nev hilariously responds ‘These people are psychopaths!’, suggesting that this whole time he could’ve been talking to a dude. From there the mystery begins as he and his friends attempt to figure out who’s really behind this online family. Eventually the team decides to pay Meghan a surprise visit, only to find her house is abandoned. The next day they track down her mother’s place and send Nev knocking on the door, flowers in hand and wireless mic hidden under his shirt. What they find is not entirely surprising. SPOILER: Meghan is actually Angela, Mother of Abby (who is not an artist) and step-mother to two, severely mentally handicapped children. She was the one who painted the pictures and she was the one who maintained the ongoing relationship with Nev. Bummer.

Like many people, I took to heart the suggestion that Catfish is best seen with as little previous knowledge as possible. Outside of the trailer — which definitely had my curiosity piqued — I knew very little about the story or the ‘twist’ that so many people were buzzing about. The only information I brought into the theatre was a prior knowledge of controversial opinions about whether or not certain elements of the film were staged. Typically I find such discussions quite boring and superfluous, but Catfish seems to embrace the accusations, building on its reputation by rebranding itself a ‘reality thriller’. Overall, my theatrical experience with the film was a positive one. I found myself completely caught up in the story and at times, experiencing actual anxiety during some of the key revelatory sequences. The way in which the last forty minutes of the film reveals itself is both fascinating and complex. That said, it’s not without its problems.

Catfish

It wasn’t until I had had some time away from Catfish that I started to rethink my experience, questioning the overall purpose of the film and how the filmmakers might have gone about capturing this unusual chain of events on camera. Any reservations I have basically come down to the fact that I don’t totally buy the idea of the lead character, Nev, falling so hard and so fast for this online girl he’s never met. I do think all of the events that unfold in the second half of the film are real, I’m just not sure that I believe the guys were as naive as they made themselves out to be. Rather than killing the suspense (and the film) by simply googling a few names and resolving the mystery in the first ten minutes (like most people with any sort of experience with the internet would do), they toy with this mystery woman under the guise of a budding online romance. Maybe I would’ve found the whole thing easier to swallow if their intentions were clear from the start; to solve a mystery. But to what end? I’m still trying to figure out the overall purpose of the film beyond simply being an engaging, sensational mystery. I can’t help but feel this cautionary tale warning that ‘things aren’t always as they seem on the internet’ is about 10 years too late. I would imagine the idea someone assuming a false identity online is quite obvious to anyone with even the most remote computer experience (especially the web savvy twenty-somethings in this film). Its the information age equivalent of ‘if placed over head, plastic bag may cause asphyxiation or even death’.

I’m also still not entirely sure how I feel about Angela’s role in this whole thing. Part of me thinks she was manipulated and exploited but she’s certainly guilty of her own brand of deception. I guess I just get uncomfortable with the idea that the filmmakers might be trying to make an example of her. There’s a point in which they say they’re concerned about embarrassing her, but Nev contradicts this in a scene where he asks Angela to speak in her ‘Meghan’ voice. It’s a self-aware and truly uncomfortable moment that’s more accusatory than exploratory. It was revealed on this weeks episode of 20/20 — dedicated to exploring Catfish — that Angela is schizophrenic. Does this change anything? Did the filmmakers knowingly take advantage of a mentally ill woman? She says she doesn’t feel like she was exploited, but what about her husband? He didn’t agree to be interviewed for the special, so I imagine he might be having mixed feelings about appearing in a documentary distributed by Universal Studios. That said, who am I to judge whether or not these people are mentally capable of knowing whether or not they’re being taken advantage of. Maybe it’s presumptuous to stand up for someone who’s perfectly fine with being part of a film like Catfish.

Another issue I had was with the ambiguity over who I’m supposed to sympathize with. I’m totally fine with the idea of unsympathetic, even despicable, lead characters, but I feel like Catfish wants you to feel sorry for someone; I’m just not sure who. Assuming that everything in the film was sincere, Nev was taken for a ride. Angela played with his emotions and ultimately crushed him in the end. That said, he definitely should’ve known better. While Angela herself is painted as sort of a tragic figure, I can’t help but feel that the ‘harsh’ reality of her life — taking care of ‘retarded’ kids — is presented as such due to the fact that she, and the filmmakers, created this idealistic fantasy family that plays as the ultimate bait and switch. It’s only in contrast that things seem so dismal. In fact, if I were the parent of a disabled child I would almost feel insulted by the assumption that such an existence is a terrible one. Angela has a loving family, a great husband and is clearly a talented artist. All of these positive aspects of her life are almost negated by the fact that she played out a fantasy online that didn’t line up with Nev’s, or the audiences, expectations. We were set up for this fall, and it’s sort of at the expense of the family. Still, the revelation does hold some power, even if it’s heavily manipulative. But hey, isn’t all filmmaking manipulative?

Catfish is one of the more troubling, complex and ultimately fascinating films of the year. While I don’t think it’s particularly deep or worthy of some of the praise it’s been receiving, it’s no doubt one of the more engaging documentaries I’ve seen in some time and has definitely started some interesting conversations. I will definitely be revisiting it in the future in hopes of coming to some kind of decision on whether or not I feel it’s an example of daring, subversive non-fiction filmmaking or merely an extension of sensational reality television. Either way, it was a great mystery at the expense of the participants; the true definition of a ‘guilty pleasure’. — Jay C.

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