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Sundance Review: Catfish

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2010

Catfish is a movie for which the old “truth is stranger than fiction” adage might have been invented. It’s a documentary that begins in a weird place and gets weirder, a movie about an unusual bond that’s even more out there than it initially seems, and a hard picture to review because of the risk of spoiling its surprises. Blessed with perceptive insight into the Internet age, the rewriting of social rules it has spurred and the new forms of creativity it has inspired, the film is very much a product of the here and now. So the fact that it seems the breakout success from Sundance 2010 comes as no surprise.

Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman follow Ariel’s brother Nev, a suave New York photographer immersed in what at first seems to be a standard 21st century relationship. An innocent Internet correspondence with a young girl from Michigan named Abby, who sends him paintings of his pictures, leads to a progressively naughtier one with Megan, her sexy older sister. Immersed in his back-and-forth over their personal life, which also includes their mother Angela and a wealth of Megan’s friends, Nev and the filmmakers decide to pay them a visit.

What they find is, well, not what they expected, spurring the onset of a deep, complex mystery. While the first half of the film convincingly depicts the immersive qualities of the social networking virtual world, the ease with which it melds with real life away from the computer, it’s during the last half that the movie really takes hold. The unspooling of the aforementioned enigma, the details of which will not be revealed here, provides considerable suspense and the full-fledged development of one extraordinary character arc.

Some, including a questioner of the filmmakers at a Sundance public screening, have wondered whether Catfish might be a giant ruse, a work of fiction sold as one of truth. That impression is bolstered by the fact that the picture is rendered with a polished investigatory veneer, with private, candid conversations caught at just the right moments and characters willingly exposing some uncomfortable realities on camera. I, for one, believe the filmmakers, though they’ve spun such a cogent and affecting picture out of a thin conceit that were the film a put-on it might not have mattered.

Few recent movies have more adeptly wrung together a narrative rife with grand societal insights and intimate personal details. Even fewer work as well as both a thriller and a human drama. A bidding war for distribution has commenced. I look forward to the debates the movie will surely inspire and the chance to discuss it in full, without worrying about ruining the surprises it has to offer.