Catfish Swims the Line Between Truth and Fiction

Catfish (2010)

Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman

Rogue Pictures, 87 mins. PG-13

* * *

Is there a difference between Facebook and Second Life, the virtual world that allows you to create an avatar and develop a virtual reality? The documentary Catfish suggests that the line between them can be mighty thin.

Catfish tells the story of three New York City-based filmmakers who’ve been shooting dance footage. When one Yaniv (“Nev”) Shulman’s stills shows up on the wire services, he gains an admirer: an eight-year-old girl in upstate Michigan who friends him on Facebook. Soon Nev is receiving remarkably mature paintings from Abby Wesselman-Price, most of which are based on Nev’s own photographs. Before he knows it, Nev is “friends” on Facebook with Abby, her foxy mother Angela, her hunky husband Vince, Abby’s ultra-sexy half sister Megan, and a network of Michiganites who are fans of Abby’s art. The precocious Abby, apparently, is such a hot item that she’s become a gallery regular in Michigan. Nev is not only intrigued, he thinks he’s falling in love with Megan, who texts hot messages, coos suggestive words over the telephone, and posts polished original songs on Facebook. It all seems too good to be true and the lads begin to suspect it’s not. Road trip!

Catfish is half of a good film, but you’ll need to wade through 40 minutes of self-reverential and pedestrian schlock to get to the shocking and creepy second half. The twenty-somethings who made this documentary are not fabulous filmmakers, and they exude such levels of irony and smugness that some critics have charged that this is a Borat-like mockumentary rather than a true account of Nev’s relationship with the Wesselman-Price family. Joost and the Schulmans insist the story is true and that their remarkable and candid footage was pure luck. It would be unfair to say more than things are not what they appear to be.

So is the film real or a paste-up fake? In a way, that’s what the film is about. It raises questions about whether one could live two lives--one in the real world and an entirely different one in cyberspace. Remember films such as Blade Runner and Moon in which replicants were falsely implanted with back-story memories? Those films were set in the future, but what if that future is now and one can choose to construct a life story? Catfish is no Blade Runner or Moon, but its central mystery is as provocative as a good sci-fi tale. This makes it worth catching or renting.

By the way, the title’s pretty oblique and probably wasn’t wisely chosen. (It sounds more like what one would name a film about growing up in the South.) It comes from a throwaway story from Vince and is a (lame) metaphor for how beauty and anxiety need each other.

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