Sunday, October 31, 2010
It's hard to talk about a movie like Catfish without getting into spoilers. Documentaries come in many flavors, but a well-crafted one can be as thrilling and affecting as any big budget film. The most fascinating tend to take on a life of their own, stemming from a seed of an idea and blossoming beyond anything the filmmakers could have anticipated. Catfish aspires to be one of those movies, but is unable to capitalize on a fantastic story and becoming frustrating and laborious when it should be satisfying.
Catfish centers around a New York City photographer Nev Schulmann, a young man who strikes up an interesting friendship with 8-year-old Abby from Michigan after she sends him a painting she made after seeing one of his photographs. As they begin to foster a friendship, other characters become embroiled in the story, including Abby's mother Angela and Abby's older sister Megan. What began innocently becomes complex when Nev develops feelings for Meghan and resolves to pay the family a surprise visit on his way home from a Colorado dance convention. Needless to say, things are not as they seem.
I won't get into the twists and turns of the final third of the film, but suffice to say that there are some revelations that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush. Twists aside, this is where the film began to lose my attention and my patience, not good for a film that clocks in under 90 minutes. Moreso than any other genre of film, Documentaries carry with them a risk of distorting or infusing the story with opinions when they should remain impartial and let the story tell itself. The situation becomes even more precarious when the filmmakers themselves become characters in the documentary and are controlling the arc. Their every action has to be taken with a grain of salt and you can't help but ask if they are doing the things they do for a good story or their brother's well-being? At the same time, when a filmmaker takes the bold step to insert themselves into the story, they can't expect to be a fly on the wall and revert back to being a silent observer. Catfish tries to have it both ways and fails on this account.
Throughout the film, the directors interact with Nev, encouraging him to pursue things with Megan offering advice and counsel, while documenting every minute of it. When the film moves to Michigan, they tag along and outfit Nev with hidden microphones and stake out the scene from their car. But when the twists are revealed and the film strikes a different tone, they are nowhere to be found. When the climactic scenes are begging for a voice of reason or a critical eye to drive home a larger message, they make no effort to push the story to a conclusion or even hold people accountable. You didn't film hours of footage and spend months of your lives on this film to take a knee in the last scene. What could have been a powerful commentary on internet relationships and human nature instead settles for a sloppy music montage and a few lines of text to tie things together.