The film chronicles the online relationship of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. He’s a twenty-something New York City photographer who gets a painting in the mail one day. It’s a painting based upon one of his pictures published in a New York magazine. A 12-year-old girl saw the photo and was inspired to paint. She keeps sending more and more paintings to Nev in New York. He researches the 12-year-old, her family, and eyes pictures of Megan, her older sister. Megan is a strikingly good-looking model who also dances, plays the cello, writes songs, and raises horses. Nev and Megan have several conversations via phone, texting, online chatting, e-mail, and Facebook postings. It’s a relationship completely dependent on thumbs. Then Nev, along with his filmmaking friends Henry Joost and Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, start noticing peculiarities. Why does Megan pass off other people’s songs as her own? Why does she never seem to be around when other family members are? Is Megan really Megan? The guys start investigating and deconstructing this online romantic fable. Nev’s friends prod him into making an unexpected road trip to Megan’s family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. They’re excited and morbidly curious about what awaits them.
I suppose your ultimate feelings about this movie will depend upon whether you view Catfish as a work of fiction or non-fiction. In either case, there’s a lot of manipulation and exploitation. Even if you do some half-hearted Internet research, you can find real-life events mentioned in the film that actually happened. A real-life special needs child died in the town of Ishpeming, as described in the closing text of the film. That means that a character we see late in the film is either the genuine special needs child or was a stand-in for one and the filmmakers took advantage of a community’s loss for “authenticity.” Which is more manipulative? Nev and his pals want to expose this scheming family, broadcasting private messages and intruding upon their lives with cameras to document their foibles. From my assessment, the film felt staged from start to finish. What luck they had cameras rolling for all these important moments of inquiry. But does that mean that the film is any less believable? The movie examines how easy it is not just to create a different persona, or new friends via the Internet; it showcases how the Internet allows people to create their own world. People lose themselves in alternate online realities, not just social-networking sites like Facebook but The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and all sorts of other avatar-based sites. The Internet allows us to fashion our own worlds, our own escape door from reality. Our grasp on reality has become subjective, which is further evidence that the truthfulness of the film is a moot point (a fictional non-fiction film about people posing as fictional versions of who they want to be online?). What does identity mean in an age of ever-increasing fiction?
As a film, Catfish is a mess of digital images. We see Facebook posts and text messages, scrutinize images posted Online, scroll through Google and YouTube for damming evidence of a con, and the guys make extensive use of Google Earth to showcase their cross-country travels. The visual do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to the stab at authenticity as well as amateur journalism. The framing of the shots, however, is another point that tips Catfish into being a likely work of fiction. Whatever the case may be, the filmmakers and the subjects aren’t speaking one way or another.
Those snookered by Catfish’s sensational trailer (there will be many) are likely in for a crushing disappointment. Catfish begins as a slightly intriguing mystery as Nev and his buddies uncover the irregularities and discrepancies of Megan. Then when the trio actually arrives in Ishpeming in the dead of night, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of “don’t go in there!” cinema. Nev’s filmmaking pals egg it on with self-aware comments about how scared they are or how creepy the situation is becoming. Then again, who exactly peaks into an abandoned horse farm in the dead of night? At this point, goaded by the trailer, you’re expecting Catfish to go down the grisly horror path. You expect they will discover some terrifying secret like that Megan is apart of a family of grifters that lure unsuspecting men from the Internet to be butchered and have their organs sold. Catfish does not go down that path. It actually pretty much goes the way you’d expect in real life. It actually turns out to be a fairly normal, mundane story, something that would have made an interesting one-hour TV special (“To Catch an Internet Poser”? It would run for decades). Catfish begins as a warning about how well we can truly know someone in the digital age, but then it concludes as a thoughtful character-piece about the steps people take to alleviate the disappointments and hardships of life.
Catfish has some moments of intrigue and tension, but at most the film is a mildly interesting experiment. It straddles many creative lines. It’s both fiction and non-fiction, humane and exploitative, probing and lethargic, a fitting contradistinction about a world that full of them. It’s a mostly well-crafted movie but what do you do with it after you know all its secrets? Nev and his crew are on a crusade for the truth, but whose truth? If you’re looking for a true stimulating experience exploring life in the Internet age, check out The Social Network again. Talking and analyzing Catfish is more intriguing than actually viewing the film.
Nate’s Grade: B-