PLOT - Back in 2007, Yaniv "Nev" Schulman had a photo of his published in the New York Sun. A few months later, he received an email from a young girl named Abby Pierce who wanted permission to paint his photo. This correspondence soon blossomed into a full-on online friendship and Nev would have short conversations with Abby's older half-sister Megan. Despite being distanced by hundreds of miles he soon becomes entrenched in her life all linked by Facebook. Romantic undertones develop but then a development crops up -- the same spoiler that many articles and reviews about Catfish take care not to explicitly state -- and the movie takes a turn for the profound... but also the doubtful.
[Ed. note: While no major spoilers are given up in the review below, it does touch on a number of issues and themes from the film, which may inadvertently telegraph certain plot points so I'll issue a SPOILER ALERT now..]
REVIEW - The film that shook up Sundance is all grown up and ready for distribution. Called CATFISH [for reasons that won't become apparent until the very end] the film presents itself as a documentary and, indeed, everyone in the film is who they say they are -- believe me, I spent hours doing the research -- and did the things portrayed in the film. But that's where my certainty about Catfish ends. In the days since seeing the film in its post-Sundance and possibly gussied-up state, I've wavered between my appreciation of it as an absolutely well-made, enjoyable, and deep film, to questioning how good of a documentary it is. Because -- and this is sure to become the contention upon release -- for all its indie and homespun airs, the majority of the film may come off as a forced set-up to capture the only genuine character within the whole affair, the "Catfish."
Make no mistake about it; despite being a homemade movie shot by aspiring professional filmmakers, Catfish is a polished cinematic experience pieced together by Google map/Gmail/Facebook montages that chart the progression of Nev's eight-month relationship with the Pierce family as well as the impromptu roadtrip that unites the three with the cast of characters they've grown to know. But once the final reveal rears its head, each of the previously precious and endearing moments is cast into doubt. Suddenly, Nev's naivete, that he had no idea what he was getting into and the truth about Abby, Angela, and Megan, seems hard to believe, especially when most potential audience members, when presented with Catfish's premise about the development of an online romance, guesses immediately that Megan is not who she says she is.
The truth of the matter, and one that studios and writers alike will shield you from, is that the story behind the why and who of Megan's true identity is so much more nuanced and sympathetic than just finding out that your online dating match is actually fatter/skinnier or balder/hairier than you expected. The real Megan is a person whose story resonates with everyone, whether it's something we're secretly afraid of or something that we've seen others experience. And in bringing her story to the screen, the Schulmans and Henry do an incredible job of highlighting a hidden problem that is both at the outskirts of society and in every home. But my fear is that it wasn't as unwitting a find as the fimmakers and star make it out to be. The clues as to the truth behind Megan are littered everywhere, and it's rather far-fetched that a young man from New York beginning a romantic liaison with someone in Michigan wouldn't have performed a simple Internet search on the object of his affections or investigated further into the Facebook profiles surrounding her. (There's one major clue that is partially glossed over in the film but which I will only allude to by asking, "Wouldn't you think it's weird if a person and his/her friends only had the same circle of 20 or so Facebook friends?")
Faced with the simplicity of Megan's charade, it becomes harder to buy that the entire documentary wasn't hatched in order to bring the true Megan to the surface -- meaning that the romantic relationship between the two was only a set-up with Nev knowing all the cards and Megan reeling when it ultimately goes nowhere. And a documentary that is no more than a scheme in which "real people" pretend both for the camera and the only real person in the production is just a farce in the end. We're supposed to buy Nev's surprise and embarrassment when he gets his first on-camera hint that Megan may not be who she says she is, but as he ducks his head into the refrigerator to register his embarrassed anger with his brother and friend, it seems more like the actions of an amateur actor attempting to hide his giggles. The same can be said when Nev decides to read his salacious text messages to Megan, the sort that would make you blush and grab your phone if someone happened upon yours, and breaks into hysterics, hiding his face from the camera. And when the trio decide to confront Megan, it takes on the cadence of voyeurism, not genuine curiosity and respect for a woman who is being secretly recorded and taped under the guise of them making home videos.
Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps, Nev never knew what he was getting into. But the final half or so of the film in which he confronts Megan still has unabashedly intrusive effect, prompting second-hand embarrassment in me and nervous giggles from the assembled in my screening room. The trailer depicting CATFISH as a horror aren't that far off, my boyfriend pointed out, and faux documentary or not, the film is still very real and incredibly engaging once the real Megan is on screen. It's just a shame there had to be so many lies between the four of them before we could get to what is both a deeply depressing and hopeful message. While many look at the film as a simple chronicling of how the online world plays into perceptions and relationship, the real message is that for someone like Megan, the online world is her only world -- and it can help.