Catfish is half a documentary. Yes, it's an interesting, well-done half, but filmmakers Ariel "Rel" Schulman and Henry Joost are too passive to go as deep as the discoveries they make are asking them to go. Obviously, given that the whole marketing campaign hangs on the tagline "Don't let anyone tell you what it is!", I'm not going to break my usual spoiler-free policy and reveal what those discoveries are, but as one of the subjects says, "this is just the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to what Schulman and Joost could theoretically say on the subject at hand.
At first, that subject is Nev Schulman, Ariel's brother. Nev is a photographer who takes pictures of dancers in New York City, and one of his photos catches the eye of a young girl named Abby, who creates a painting of Nev's photo and sends it to him. Over the course of six months, Ariel and Abby form a friendship in which he sends her photos and she sends back the paintings; said friendship expands to include Abby's mother Angela and Abby's older sister Megan. Nev's friendship with Megan quickly turns into a relationship, and ultimately Nev and his documentarian friends decide to travel out to Michigan and spring a surprise visit on Nev's long-distance girlfriend.
Rogue has been aggressively marketing Catfish as some sort of internet horror movie, using a trailer that draws comparisons to Hitchcock amidst a series of creepy glimpses, as if the story the film ultimately ends up telling has to be pieced together like a mystery in the aftermath of something shattering. Although the final product builds tension extremely well, a good portion of the audience at my screening seemed to be quite let down by what Nev ultimately discovers. What he finds is certainly out there, and there's more than a handful of head-spinning revelations in store if one considers all of the emotional and psychological factors at play, but I guess in a world with 4chan, it might not be out there enough for the kinds of jaded kids who've already seen it all.
Beyond that, Catfish is mostly hobbled by the fact that the creators are in the same boat as a first-time viewer. They don't know what to expect at the end of the GPS trail, and once they know, they try too hard to remain objective, afraid to ruffle any feathers lest they end up with a project without an ending. At a certain point, "Rel" and Joost are just covering the basics, tiptoeing around as if they're in a house of cards. A good documentarian will try to engage with the various subjects they come across, but "Rel" and Joost are on their best behavior. Sure, there's nothing wrong with being polite, and these guys are certainly that (more shocking than anything they discover is how much empathy they have for the whole situation), but it doesn't exactly make for riveting cinema.
Several people have theorized that Catfish is staged, and I can certainly understand why. Thanks to films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, we've had a fair share of mockumentaries looking to summon a few chills, and it's a miracle that nothing goes particularly wrong, given all the wildcards in the story being told. Still, I can't buy that it's fake. What are the odds that not one but several people (beyond just Nev, "Rel" and Joost), all of whom are relatively trackable in terms of being who they're presented as being, had the means and drive to fake the whole thing (or even part of it), and also happen to be good enough actors to pull it off? Nev seems genuine. The skeptics also wonder why these seemingly tech-savvy guys never did the kind of Google research that would have led them to the truth earlier. Personally, I've never Googled anyone I met online. Maybe I should start.
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