Monday, January 10, 2011
Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Nev Schulman, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, Angela Wesselman
Running Time: 86 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Released behind one of the most mysteriously gripping trailers in years, Catfish, the second social networking film of 2010 is the one that's actually ABOUT Facebook. After viewing that trailer, I've spent the past couple of months trying hard not to read anything about the controversial documentary or talk to anyone who's seen it, worried the "big twist" would be spoiled for me, as has happened countless times in the past. I was even more conscious here knowing that if it could follow through on the promise of those two minutes, the possibilities were limitless. But I was asking the wrong questions because the twist (if you could even call it that) isn't about the "What," but the "How." Twenty minutes in it's pretty clear where this is going so you might be wondering what the big deal is, even if doing that would be missing the point. The movie's misleading advertising campaign which sells it as a Hitchcockian suspense thriller complete with the tagline, "Don't Tell Anyone What It Is," is at least partially responsible for that reaction. But now after viewing it I see just how deliberate that strategy was in getting the audience to share in the mystery surrounding its premise and place them in the shoes of the protagonist. Or more accurately, it was probably just to get them into the theater. Yet I'd still advise anyone to read as little about it as possible and go in completely fresh, not because of a giant secret needs protecting, but because anyone talking about it will undoubtedly describe the unfolding events as being less than what they are. These events aren't unusual, but the film's smart enough to deeply examine what they mean.
In late 2007, when New York City-based filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost began filming the life of Ariel's 24-year-old photographer brother Nev, they had no idea what they'd be in for. After Nev receives a painting of one of his photographs from Abby Pierce, an eight-year old prodigy artist from Michigan, they strike up an online correspondence. He becomes Facebook friends with her entire family, which includes mother Angela, dad Vincent, and older half-sister Megan Faccio, an 18-year-old songwriter. Over the course of almost a year, Nev's online connection with the family escalates and his long-distance relationship with the single and attractive Megan heads into romantic territory with late-night phone calls, texting, and internet chats. Soon, it becomes clear through a series of clues that this family isn't at all what they appear to be. On their way back from a work-related trip to Vale, the three decide to stop in Michigan to pay the Pierces a surprise visit and get to the bottom of the mystery.
From the very beginning, it helps that Nev doesn't come across as a fool. Naive and hopeful maybe, but definitely not a fool. He knows what he's getting into, seems almost fully aware of the risks, yet falls into the trap anyway, as do his brother and Henry who realize that the further they go with their investigation the more compelling footage they'll get, no matter who gets hurt in the process. In this sense what they're doing is actually very dangerous and there's always this unsettling, uncomfortable feeling hovering over their actions that doesn't subside throughout the picture, even after they discover the truth. Even though this isn't a thriller when these three guys pull up to Megan's farmhouse in the middle of the night in rural Michigan you could have fooled me. I was terrified in way I wasn't while watching "found footage" scenes in movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. With pulse pounding, all the potential scenarios of what they'd find or what would happen if they got inside were racing through my mind at a mile a minute. The film lets us share with Nev his nervous anticipation and dread of what will occur when he discovers the truth, and when he does, we share in his disappointment, knowing it wasn't what we expected either.
It's only after the reveal that the film reaps the full benefits of its set-up, taking a surprisingly empathetic turn. I didn't expect it to be as sad as it was, then as strangely uplifting. Just as Nev expects more, so will the audience, likely not realizing what they got. You come away thinking that if Nev had gotten exactly what he wanted from this entire experience and his relationship with Megan, it wouldn't have been nearly as important than what does actually come from it. Everyone wonders what it would be like to live in a different part of the country with a different job, different friends, different hobbies and even envision the perfect person to share it with. The biggest danger in social networking has always been the creation of a substitute world for those who can't cope with the real one. The internet is the great equalizer because we reveal only what we choose to reveal about ourselves, to the point where the line between deception and reality is blurred, buried behind half-truths and sometimes even outright lies.
Those claiming this whole thing is a hoax had better hope they're right because if it's real that means the boundaries of what we thought a documentary is capable of have been torn down. It would mean that direction, editing, music, and graphics, actual footage were manipulated into a dramatically thrilling narrative that contains plot twists and scenes as thrilling and as funny as any fictional film. If it's fake, then it's brilliant on an entirely different level as a work of meta-fiction, containing a supporting performance from an actress that has to be seen to be believed. A win either way. Doubters claim the pieces fit too perfectly into place (including it's mysterious title) but the likeliest scenario is that these guys set out to make a legitimate documentary, realized what they stumbled on, then wisely saw it through to its end.
This is the movie Mark Zuckerberg should fear because it's an attack on the creation, not its creator, exposing how easy it is for the events here to happen and the lack of protection in place to prevent it. Like The Social Network, this has also come under fire for its factual accuracy, but in neither case is it at all relevant to the final product put on screen. That this was released the same year as that colossal achievement and still proves to be a worthy conversation-stirring companion piece is impressive in itself. The jury might still be out on the value of social networking for us but there's little doubt as to the compelling material it's provided for feature films in the past year. It'll be interesting to see how Catfish holds up on repeated viewings because while it falls prey to promising something no movie could have delivered on, it's thematically more successful than could have possibly been anticipated.