Film Review: Catfish

A Facebook connection evolves into a surprising real-life movie mystery in this highly original documentary by a team of New York videographers.

The opening moments of the documentary Catfish are inauspicious, to say the least. Commercials and documentary directors Ariel (“Rel”) Schulman and Henry Joost train their cameras on Rel’s brother Yaniv (known as “Nev”), a photographer with whom they share an office in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Nev is young, handsome and personable, but why is this particular member of the downtown New York art scene the focus of an entire digital feature? Is this a glorified home movie?

Fortunately, the plot soon thickens. Nev’s Facebook account has received a message from an eight-year-old girl in Michigan named Abby Pierce, asking his permission to create a painting from a photograph Nev took of a ballet dancer, which appeared in The New York Sun. When Nev receives the painting, he’s amazed by the girl’s talent and begins an online correspondence with Abby and her family. His Facebook friend list soon grows to include Abby’s older sister Meg, a gifted singer and composer. Before long, Nev finds himself in a serious online romantic relationship with Meg, complete with racy exchanges of text messages.

But then, Nev makes a startling discovery: One of Meg’s “original” songs is strikingly similar to another he’s found on YouTube. A little more research indicates that all of Meg’s prolific musical output is likely bogus. The revelation leads Nev and his office mates to question all their innocent assumptions about the Pierce family, and their casual video account morphs into a road trip and a movie mystery.

To reveal more would spoil the many surprises of this groundbreaking DIY indie feature. It’s enough to say that Catfish gets deeper and more haunting as the Schulmans and Joost delve into their real-time journey. Angela, the matriarch of the Pierce family, is much more complex and confounding than the young videographers could have imagined—deceptive, manipulative, brilliant and heroic are all words that apply.

Catfish, whose title is derived from an apt metaphor offered by Angela’s husband, is the kind of movie that will have viewers talking and debating long after the final credits. But, apart from fessing up to his own naïveté, the comparatively privileged Nev Schulman is less self-analytical than he ought to be here, eliding questions about the privacy issues of his video investigation and the disconnect between his virtual romance and the reality he uncovers—and what that says about the nature of his attraction to the mysterious Meg.

With its use of tiny digital cameras and its stylish application of Facebook, Google Earth, Google Maps and YouTube graphics, Catfish is truly a movie that couldn’t have existed ten years ago. Co-producer Zac Stuart-Pontier’s editing of hours of footage amidst those graphic elements keeps this low-budget doc brisk and visually lively. Still building on its Sundance buzz, Catfish should lure a sizeable audience, both young and older art-house types, beyond the usual documentary crowd.