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Universal // PG-13 // January 4, 2011
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 29, 2010 | E-mail the Author
It's a timeless story! A New Yorker in his early-to-mid 20s strikes a close bond with an 8-year-old girl from some sleepy little speck on the map in Michigan, swapping pictures and oodles of messages over the Internet. This
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tale doesn't end with Chris Hansen walking into the room, though. It's not a story about's about art! See, Nev Schulman is a twentysomething photographer in the Big Apple who specializes in snapping shots of dancers. One photo of his caught the eye of a tyke the better part of a thousand miles away, and young Abby painted it. Nev was flattered -- who wouldn't be? -- and it didn't hurt that the painting was pretty great. He sends her more photos, and she sends him more paintings. This 8-year-old clearly has to be some kind of artistic prodigy, and since Nev happens to share an office with a couple of filmmakers, they all decide to make a documentary short about it...about Abby's talents, artistic bonds spanning many hundreds of miles, and all that.

Meanwhile, Nev starts to get cozy with Abby's family...or at least as cozy as you can get over the phone and on Facebook. Nev chats regularly with Abby's mother, who looks to be some kind of modelesque MILF. Abby's barely legal sister Megan also has more than a couple of artistic gifts, being a photographer, model, dancer, singer, and multi-instrumental musician. Nineteen years old and a stone-cold fox! Meg and Nev hit it off. A long-distance romance starts brewing, they do that whole sexting thing all the kids are into these days, and she even writes and records some songs especially for Nev. Awwwww! Oh, but while Nev and company are out on a film shoot in Colorado, they clue in that Meg neither wrote nor recorded any of that music. All of a sudden, everything they've been told about Angela and her family seems suspect. They're about to get on a plane anyway, so why not make a detour in Michigan to sniff out the truth?

Revealing exactly what happens next would be awfully spoilery, but I'm sure it goes without saying there's not some artistic commune in Michigan with a pint-sized painting prodigy and her pin-up girl family. The truth is quite a bit more sad and tragic than that. What's also rather sad is that Catfish touts itself as a documentary when it very clearly -- to my eyes, at least -- is playing hard and fast with the facts. There really isn't any doubt in my mind that what Nev and company uncover in Michigan is the case, but just about everything leading up to it rings false. I mean, the very first words in the flick state how the three of 'em are making a documentary about Abby. Up to this point, though, no one's actually spoken to her. No one's looked for any local newspaper articles or anything about her. No one's spoken to teachers, friends, or extended family. This is a girl who supposedly owns her own art gallery and sells her paintings for thousands of dollars a pop, and yet it's months before anyone thinks to look for newspaper write-ups about her. All three of the New Yorkers are tech-savvy twentysomethings, and hell, they're supposed to be professional filmmakers to boot. Who'd dive into a documentary without bothering with the slightest amount of background research whatsoever? Why would you commit to a documentary, shooting who knows how many hours of footage of your kid brother, seemingly without letting the artistic prodigy it's about know that this is even happening? I mean, what kind of market would there be for a documentary about an immeasurably gifted 8-year-old painter from a tiny, remote town where you never actually see or speak to the girl? That's what it would've had to have been if they didn't lock down clearances, do even a few minutes of research, or whatever. The idea that these guys would buy into a story like this and think "hey, there's a documentary here!" without bothering with any of the legwork documentary filmmakers would reflexively do seems absurd.

...and then there's the whole thing with Megan. Nev's a young, good-looking, and I'm sure at least reasonably successful guy in the most sprawling metropolis on the planet. He's contacted by a foxy 19 year old photographer/model/dancer/singer/guitarist/pianist/astronomer/physicist/who-the-hell-knows-what-else who lives 900 miles or whatever away, and no red lights start whirring? Admittedly, I know things like this happen. One of my oldest friends in the world got himself ensnared in a pretty much identical situation over a girl he'd
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fallen for online, and without ever even having met her, this broad convinced him that the Mafia was after him, that her psychotic brother had sent helicopters after him...the most outlandish, cartoonishly over-the-top scenarios you could dream up, and he fell for it hook, line, and sinker. (...and yes, when I say "a friend", I really do mean "not me"! Pinky swear.) So, whatever. Still, no "too good to be true"? No casual Googling? No questioning the fact that the pictures of Angela we see aren't of someone who could possibly have a nineteen year old daughter? One of the few authentic moments in the first half of the film comes when Nev's fully aware of the bullshit and texts Meg a bunch of ridiculous, softcore Red Shoes Diary-style come-ons. His cackling at the absurdity of it all seems genuine, but just about everything leading up to all this...his interactions with Abby, the online fling with Meg, the shock-gasp-horror discovery that Meg didn't churn out any of that music herself...comes across as artificial. There's briefly some mock-outrage, but Nev doesn't seem the least bit hurt upon learning that his 9 month online fling is based at least in part on a lie. I get the sense that these three filmmakers knew there'd be a pot of gold on the other end of the rainbow. Maybe they didn't know the specifics, but they were certain there was something there to exploit, and their reactions throughout the first half of their film have been artificially constructed to get them there.

There is quite a bit I like about the construction of Catfish, though. This is a wired world, and the film's visual language draws deeply from web browsers, desktop icons, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Earth, and Facebook. Even the design and placement of the intertitles is striking. Still, there's something artificial and...acted about Nev and his pals whenever they're in front of the camera. A concerted effort is made so that Nev comes across as a nice, sympathetic guy, but there's a smugness and narcissism that seeps through it all, and I guess I just can't relate to a dude with a tramp stamp. Catfish makes some points about the escape and fantasy permitted by technology...where interaction is replaced by avatars, plain text, and an occasional voice on the other end of the phone...but is there any searing new insight here? Not really. Catfish has been mismarketed as more of a thriller, and there's little-to-none of that in the film itself. The closest that things ever get to that is Nev nosing around a remote farm in the wee hours of the morning, and you're kinda just waiting for a farmer to run out with a shotgun or something (which...SPOILER!...never happens). When you actually do have a chance to get to meet the person responsible for all of this, there's a definite emotional impact. There's a sad melancholy to it all, but this isn't a pathetic figure to be mocked. Clearly I'm stepping lightly around spoilers here, but suffice it to say that I'm not sure how someone with a fully-functional, beating heart couldn't be sympathetic to what's revealed. Catfish handles this somewhat delicately and with some well-deserved compassion, but it still feels uncomfortably crass, exploitative, and narcissistically misdirected with the focus so intensely placed on Nev and his friends. There's a powerful and potentially insightful film to be mined from Angela's story -- from the bond between artist and admirer, from the way technology brings us closer together yet further apart, from the need for escape from devotion, sacrifice, and hardship -- but Catfish isn't it. Rent It.

The quality of the footage that makes up Catfish is wildly erratic, alternating between prosumer HD, a tiny digital camera on the dashboard of a rental car, and...hell, probably even their iPhones at some points. Some stretches -- particularly whenever the cameras are out under the beaming summer sun -- look terrific, while many others are rather soft and swarming with video noise. The end result looks better than anything DVD could hope to hammer out but not exactly in the league you'd expect out of a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc. That's all intentional, and Catfish even plays that up at times...that exposing the seams is part of the language of the film and that the homebrewness of it all is meant to make the audience feel more a part of it. For its part, Universal has lavished the movie with a far higher-than-expected bitrate, and any flaws that can be spotted certainly date back to the original photography rather than the authoring of this Blu-ray disc.

Catfish is served up on a BD-50 platter, and the image is very slightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Catfish is meant to have an off-the-cuff "hey, let's make a documentary!" aesthetic to it, and accordingly, just about everything you hear is recorded either through lapel mics or the built in microphones on their cameras. There's not supposed to be a grip chasing after these guys with an oversized boom or anything, so, yeah, the conversations can be kind of tinny and distant at times. Pretty much everything's rooted front and center. If you're keeping your fingers crossed for hyperaggressive split-surrounds or foundation-rattling bass, you're watching the wrong flick. The sparse score by Mark Motherbaugh comes through really well, but other than that, I really doubt you'd be able to pick out a difference between this and a plain-jane stereo track on a DVD. Again, all of that's deliberate, so don't take that as a knock against the authoring of this Blu-ray disc or anything, but the audio still doesn't rank any higher than "serviceable".

The technical specs are exactly what you'd expect: six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. Also offered here are lossy DTS 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. There are subtitle streams in English (SDH), French, and Spanish as well.

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  • Secrets Revealed! (25 min.; HD): The three filmmakers behind Catfish lob questions at each other in the disc's sole extra. Why use Catfish as the title? Why did you keep clawing your way down the rabbit hole even after it was clear that Angela's story wasn't adding up? Did Nev ever feel used? Was anything staged or reshot? Looking back, is there anything you would've done differently? There's not an enormous amount of insight in here, although they do acknowledge that the editing of Catfish could sway people's perceptions of Nev even though there wasn't a conscious, deliberate attempt to do so, and there's a whole thing about how Angela's world is a "living novel". It all seems pretty insubstantial at the end of the day, though, and I don't think I'd say any secrets were actually revealed.

There's one deleted scene that's explictly mentioned in the interview, and there's more footage that was shown on 20/20's examination of the flick, but none of that's included here for whatever reason.

The Final Word
Hey, kids! Let's compare Catfish to Paranormal Activity! Both flicks are dragged down by smug, douchey leads. Both of 'em tout themselves as thrillers despite long, interminable stretches of nothing. ...and, well, Catfish strikes me as being about as much of a documentary as Paranormal Activity at the end of the day. The bulk of the first couple acts never feel anything but unwaveringly molded and artificial. As much of a wallop as the film packs once Angela finally becomes more than a disembodied voice or a Facebook chat window, there's something kind of sticky and exploitative about it all...taking advantage of a desperately sad, tragic figure because it'd play well at Sundance.

Even for those who like Catfish, I really can't see any meaningful replay value here, and the price tag for this Blu-ray disc is even tougher to swallow given its near-total lack of extras. I'd recommend steering clear altogether, but if you can't resist, stick with a rental. Rent It.
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