As one who has tarried too long in online chat rooms, forums and social media sites will confirm, the Internet is not lacking in phonies and oddballs. That obvious fact is at the core of Catfish, an alleged non-fiction film about having the digital wool pulled over one's eyes.
The word "alleged" is being used because the film has generated a degree of controversy regarding whether this is a genuine documentary or whether it is a clever fraud. An impartial viewing would suggest that the film falls someplace in the middle of those extremes: the core story might be legitimate, but too much of the film is so blatantly staged that it is impossible to imagine this is a genuine record of life unfolding.
New York filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman point their cameras at the latter's brother, photographer Nev Schulman, who supposedly was contacted via Facebook in 2007 by an eight-year-old girl Michigan named Abby. According to the film, Abby became enchanted by a ballet-inspired photograph by Nev that was published in the New York Sun - so enchanted, it seems, that she created a painting based on the photo. Overlooking a fairly obvious problem - why was an eight-year-old in Michigan reading the now-defunct right-wing New York Sun? - Nev begins an online conversation with Abby that soon involves her too-hot 19-year-old sister Megan. Nev and Megan have a hot and steamy e-mail and instant message exchange, followed by some naughty phone calls.
But things get strange when Megan shares song recordings that she claims are examples of her singing. Nev discovers that these recordings actually belong to other women. Nev and the filmmakers do some amateur sleuthing and come to a discovery that would require a major spoiler to explain.
The problems with Catfish become fairly obvious in the film's second half, when the truth about Abby and Megan is revealed. Too much of this portion of the film appears to have been carefully orchestrated for its own good. The utter lack of spontaneity in how events unfold and the seemingly bizarre manner by everyone on camera leaves the film a rather sour residue - it is not surprising that filmmaker Morgan Spurlock created a brouhaha at last year's Sundance Film Festival by openly declaring the film to be fake.
Yes, the unraveling of the mystery of Abby and Megan offers some provocative moments. But anyone who has been burned by Internet-based characters will get a sense of been-there/done-that from Catfish. In that sense, the film tells us nothing that we don't already know.
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