REVIEW: Catfish [2010]

“Hi! So who’s all real in this situation?”

I did not expect Catfish to be a real documentary. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have taken much for me to find this fact out, but I was so vigilant to go into the film with as little information to the ‘twist’ alluded to in the trailer that I refused to dig, or even rummage on the surface for that matter. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s work isn’t necessarily a cautionary tale about the abuses of internet communication or the system’s ability to hide or alter the truth, instead it is a very human story about dreams, regrets, and anonymous storytelling ignorant of the consequences. We all tell lies about ourselves, it’s inherent in ego and self-image to make our lives seem more interesting and exciting to those around us—and to ourselves. Not everyone is a sexual predator pretending to be someone they are not; sometimes good people escape into their fantasies a bit too far, forgetting where the line of reality ends and the intricate fiction begins. Only when the charade is threatened do those in the driver’s seat realize how the lies affect the ones being tricked.

This whole endeavor began as a lark between two filmmaking friends and the one’s photographer brother Nev Schulman. After having an image published, Nev is approached via Facebook by an eight-year old girl inspired to paint his work. Young Abby begins an in-depth friendship by requesting more photos to paint, sending canvases off to her muse. Genuinely touched by the reverence she has, and the quality of the work along with a jovial personality wise beyond her years, Nev starts to interact with this “Facebook Family”, becoming pen pals with her and her mother, slowly connecting emotionally with them on a personal level through electronic correspondence. It’s all quite intriguing and worthy of a more detailed look; a project Ariel cajoles his brother into partaking. Here is a child artist who is selling her work for upwards of seven thousand dollars to local collectors, making enough money to purchase an abandoned JC Pennys for studio space to display. The fact her family is loving and close-knit only makes the feel-good story more compelling.

But during the filming process, an unknown factor soon enters the equation. After writing to Abby and talking to her mother, Angela Wesselman, on the phone, Nev is introduced to Megan Faccio, their half-sister and daughter respectively. A beautiful young woman recently moved out to her own Michigan farm about 50 miles away, this dancer and amateur model sparks an online relationship with the man already entrenched in the comings and goings of kin. They have similar interests, find a healthy physical attraction for each other, and watch as their flirtations over texts, calls, and instant messages evolve to nicknames, verbally sexual exchanges, and a full-on boyfriend/girlfriend situation without ever having personally met. Nev is halfway across the country in NYC trying to retain a modicum of privacy as the relationship blossoms while his brother hounds him day and night from the other side of a video camera, capturing every second. The idea of a girl’s artistry and her creative beneficiary quickly gives way to a journey of courtship through new media—an exercise of real emotional bonds formed through sound bytes, screen pixels, and an absolute trust in one another’s words and actions. It’s Relationship 2.0.

We can see the love behind Nev’s eyes as they sparkle every time Megan contacts him. They speak every night, he sends her postcards, and she writes him songs recorded with her brother and posted onto Facebook so he can listen. The distance soon needs to be overcome and a serendipitous job filming a dance festival in Colorado allows for the opportunity. Going along with Ariel and Henry, Nev decides they will fly into Chicago on the way home, taking the drive to Michigan for a face-to-face with the girl he has fallen in love with and the family who has so enraptured his imagination. Except something happens along the way, an unexpected turn of events found on a whim with a simple Google search. Details are discovered to be stolen works of others, lies beget more lies, and the distrust leads to even more investigating to uncover a web of deceit. At this point Nev becomes uncomfortable and embarrassed by his gullibility, readying to sever ties and be done until his brother once more plays director to get him to carry it out to the end. They will go to Michigan and they will discover the truth.

Catfish deserves to be seen unencumbered by preconceptions or spoiled facts. These three men have the veil lifted from their eyes just as the audience does watching. It’s quite the impressive document when one thinks about it because Schulman and Joost have captured this tale from beginning to end with the surprise cooperation of all involved. The trailers may cut everything short in a way to make you believe some horrific conclusion will rear its head, but the real shock is the heartbreaking reality of who’s been orchestrating it all. Nev is the victim, there is no question to that fact, and you have to appreciate his patience and compassion in handling the situation with grace and understanding. You will meet the Michigan family in their entirety and find out exactly what’s been occurring for the past months over the internet. It’s a heartbreaking revelation of the sweet devastation of broken promises, dreams, and friendships. We are constantly warned about the psychopaths and homicidal maniacs out there luring innocents into their clutches, but rarely do we hear of the lonely souls reaching out for escape and companionship.

It’s scary to think how easy one can fabricate an entire family tree with unknown photos and elaborate textual conversations between made-up profiles, but it’s comforting to know there are people in the world willing to forgive others when the reasons warrant it, no matter how much pain endured. If we learn anything from Nev’s tragedy of the heart, it’s the final words of Abby’s father Vince—we all need catfish in our lives to keep us from losing ourselves in the boring monotony of life’s unbearable weight. Sometimes those moments of unexpected twists, turns, and hopes end up cutting deeper than we imagined.

Catfish 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] NEV SCHULMAN on the web in a reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times. “Catfish” is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue. Photo Credit: Rogue © 2010 Rogue. All Rights Reserved.
[2] NEV SCHULMAN on a road trip in a reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times. “Catfish” is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue. Photo Credit: Rogue © 2010 Rogue. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Nev Schulman in Rogue Pictures’ Catfish (2010)

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