Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Catfish

Catfish is a curious little documentary that was shot for $2000 and takes a seemingly innocent story and completely flips it upside down during the last third of the film. I caught this independant movie yesterday in a theater by myself in Silver Spring. Currently only on 3 or 4 screens in the DC area, Catfish is slowly opening to a wider release after having gained significant buzz at Sundance. The buzz is justified as this movie really makes brings you in to the mystery of the main plot elements. The plot itself is a little tough to discuss in this forum.

What i'll say right off the bat is that you should avoid ALL REVIEW (except this one) of this movie if you have not seen it yet. The basic synopsis is that a NYC photographer (Nev) starts up a relationship through Facebook with a family from Michigan (a Mom, her 8 year old daughter and a 19 year old daughter who becomes romantically involved with Nev). Nev and his two movie-making buddies pursue this friendship with emails, texts, phone calls, etc... and finally decide to go meet the family in person out in Michigan. That's about all I can discuss of the plot without giving anything away. The entire film is shot through small hand-held cameras and focus on Nev and his online relationships he has made. I know it doesn't sound enthralling, but TRUST ME, it is.

I cannot fully review this movie without posting spoilers. Therefore, I am going to post the spoiler paragraphs in a white font below. Simply highlight the text with your mouse if you want to know what happens and don't plan on seeing the movie. Otherwise, skip these paragraphs until you've gone and seen the film. This is your final warning...

Nev and his friends do make the hike up to Northern Michigan to confront the family after realizing that the songs Megan (the love interest) were sending to Nev were downloaded from YouTube. They eventually get to the house where the family lives and only Angela (the Mom) and her husband Vince are there. The only problem is that Angela looks twice as heavy as her Facebook profile picture and Vince looks fatter and older than his profile picture. Megan is nowhere to be found and Abby (the 8 year old) is at a friend's house. Nev and company immediately know that something is fishy.

If you haven't seen the movie, you don't know that the whole reason for the relationship with the family stemmed from 8 year old Abby's ability to paint pictures of photographs that Nev took. Nev and his crew see some of Abby's "paintings" in the house but as they then meet up with the little girl at a friend's house (and she really does look like her online pictures) they realize that she doesn't paint much at all. Abby reveals to Nev that she rarely paints and they immediately understand that Angela (her Mom) was painting the pictures the entire time. Angela keeps making excuses as to why Megan can't be there to meet her love interest (Nev).

The kicker in this story of deception is that Angela was playing 10-15 characters in this relationship all by herself. She texted/talked with Nev as "Angela" and as "Megan". She put together an elaborate string of Facebook conversations by logging in with multiple accounts. Instantly you feel like the real Angela is a sick twisted person and are appalled at her online behavior. The filmmakers could have easily left the story here, but Catfish goes further as Nev has a heart-to-heart talk with Angela who comes clean on all aspects of the deception. We also find out that she cares for Abby as well as two young boys who are both severely retarded. She sacrificed her own career and ambitions for her family and her life is pretty much a lost cause. She was using Facebook to live out her fantasies and everything she wished her life could have been.

It is a touching ending to a creepy story and we find out that Nev and Angela are still Facebook friends to this day. The entire family is thanked during the ending credits. Catfish becomes a very interesting look at how the internet has become an outlet for poor families across the country. People without any real social skills can live alternate lives and escape the doldrums of everyday life. There's no excuse for deceiving Nev the way that Angela did, but you can feel for her in a way and understand her situation. I really enjoyed the way the filmmakers brought the audience along slowly to the big reveal. I actually felt tense and nervous myself as Nev and his buddy were walking up to the house to attempt to meet the family. I don't think I've felt tension of this magnitude in any other documentary. Well done indeed.

OK, back to the spoiler-free context. This movie is well crafted and really draws you in like few documentaries I've seen. Despite a few flaws here and there, I fully recommend Catfish for everyone. Even though it is disturbing and sad at times, it really is a good case study on how the internet has affected people and society over the past 10-15 years. 4 out of 5 JRs for what may be the best documentary of 2010.

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