Catfish is a movie about the lies we tell ourselves to get through our otherwise boring lives. It’s a movie about the making of a movie, a docu-drama about a guy named Nev Schulman, shot and directed by Schulman’s brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost. The three guys are filmmakers. It’s all very meta. They take pictures and videos of dancers, and they work from their New York City studio.
The movie starts with a photo, and then a painting of that photo, taken from a newspaper and painted by eight-year-old Abby and mailed to Nev from her home in Ishpeming, Michigan. This act appeals to Nev’s narcissistic side: that is to say, all of him. And what better to do when you’re a narcissist confronted by a child prodigy artist with a penchant for copying your photographs? You make a film about it, of course.
A few months into Nev’s eight month correspondence with Abby, the filming begins, and what follows is what we, the viewer, see. We see shots of Nev in his sparse apartment, chatting on Facebook with Abby (who types rather impeccably for an eight year old), then with her mother, the beautiful Angela, and finally with Abby’s half-sister, the even more beautiful Megan.
Nev develops a relationship with Megan, views hundreds of photos of her, gets involved in her web of friends on the social networking site. We are privy to most of this, but we obviously don’t see all of the some 1500 messages exchanged between Nev and Megan during their affair.
The whole situation, film, making of film, life behind the film and life on the other side of the computer, reeks of voyeurism. But while we are drawn into the story, and all of the characters that the guys are also being drawn to, the viewer can’t help but notice the fatal failing of the film: that these guys are utterly unlikeable. Ariel and Henry are exploiting Nev’s naivety and fledgling romance, and Nev is exploiting the lives of these people hundreds of kilometers away, and they’re all doing it with smug, shit-eating grins the whole time.
The story begins to unravel, and things that once made sense become a little shakier. The boys, with all the integrity of truth-seeking independent filmmakers, set out to Ishpeming to confront Megan and meet Abby. The rest of the film succeeds at filling the viewer with sick anticipation as it climbs to an inevitable climax and hopes to untangle the web that all of these huge personalities have created.
Sadly, the film fails there. The successes of the film are in the editing and the touching story of the unlikely star of the film, Angela. The star, Nev, and his filmmaking cohort boys are too conscious of what they are doing to inspire any sympathy from the viewer, as much as the viewer wants to view the boys, specifically Nev, as unwitting victims in someone else’s grand scheme. Ultimately, Catfish asks the question: who’s exploiting whom?
Interestingly shot, this short genre-busting film is worth the watch, but not worth your money. Add it to your Netflix queue.