This year's other Facebook movie, the is it or isn't it documentary Catfish, was inexplicably marketed as a voyeuristic thriller, but is more compelling when viewed as a character study for the digital age. New York City photographer Nev Schulman befriends eight-year-old painter Abby after she sends him a recreation of one of his shots. Nev becomes entangled in Abby's social network of family and friends as his buddies document his relationship with the girl. Whether or not it's a real documentary (it probably is), Catfish is an interesting exploration of human connection via the Internet.
After getting the first of many FedEx shipments of Abby's paintings, Nev begins Facebook messaging the girl, a talented artist and equestrian from Michigan. Nev also talks to Abby's mom Angela on the phone and begins digitally flirting with Abby's sexy sister Megan. Nev and Megan soon begin a long-distance relationship, and Megan sends Nev MP3s of her singing and playing piano. By happenstance, Nev realizes the recordings are strikingly similar to some he finds on YouTube and Songza. Now skeptical of Megan's performance abilities, Nev begins to dig deeper into the life of his online crush.
To say that something is amiss in Catfish would be to spoil some of the mystery if every commercial and review for the film hadn't already done so. "It's a guy!," Nev jokes about Megan from the beginning. Maybe, maybe not. What does happen is fairly shocking if not completely unexpected. This revelation has caused many to question the validity of the film. If fake, Catfish is an interesting ruse. If true, which I happen to think it is, the Catfish story is a startlingly perfect example of online deception. Where it ends up is touching if a bit disconcerting.
Catfish makes the point that we often overlook contradictory details if we want something badly enough. Forget the dirty title of the shiny sports car or that an investment opportunity is probably a scam; if it sounds good in the moment, we often go for it. Nev begins a relationship with Abby et al. because he's lonely, trusting and sees an outlet, something that goes both ways. At once a cautionary tale and revelation that the stigma surrounding Internet relationships has all but evaporated, Catfish is a film squarely for our time. Perhaps the next generation will laugh at the primitive connections of Facebook and MySpace, but it's all we've got.
After watching Catfish, I have some lingering questions about what goes down. I wonder about Nev's intentions and those of his brother Ariel and of co-director Henry Joost. I wonder about the relative ease with which the filmmakers seem to have acquired the permission of the parties involved to be filmed and why Nev isn't particularly upset when his online girlfriend lies to him. I'm also not fully comfortable with where the story ends up, whether it's fact or fiction. Even so, Catfish excels at using today's technology to tell a compelling and unique story that may hit close to home for quite a few.
Shot with a mix of HD cameras, video point-and-shoots and James Bond-esque lapel cams, the video quality of Catfish is an intentional mixed bag, something Universal's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer replicates nicely. Quality really depends on the environment and lighting of each scene. Some shots are littered with noise and crush, while others are sharp and crystal clear. Detail is generally good, but skin tones, texture and color temperature vary considerably. Catfish looks authentic on DVD, which is a compliment, and the transfer doesn't appear to be a victim of any digital tinkering.
Like the video, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track provides an authentic documentary experience. Dialogue and ambiance sounds like it was recorded straight through the camera, giving the proceedings a not unexpected compressed feel. The film's sparse musical score is a bit more realized and makes better use of the sound field. The track mirrors the source and its inherent shortcomings. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks, as well as English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are also available.
The sole extra, Secrets Revealed: Exclusive Interview with the Filmmakers (25:06), finds Nev and co-directors Ariel Schulman and Joost fielding questions about the film. The guys are pretty flippant at the beginning, but give more in-depth and realized answers as the piece moves on. There is some pretty interesting discussion included about the reality of Catfish, its participants and the origin of its title. This discussion is a worthwhile companion to the film.
While it's not The Crying Game for the digital era as it was advertised, Catfish is an interesting, troubling look at one man's social media relationships. Buoyed by a relatable lead and competent use of technology, Catfish reminds us how easy it is to lie on the Internet. Universal's DVD replicates the theatrical presentation and provides one interesting bonus feature. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.