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USA 2010
Directed by
Henry Joost / Ariel Schulman
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Film-makers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman decide to record the long distance interaction between Shulman's brother, Nev, and 8-year old Abby, a painting wunderkind from Michigan. Nev gets to know Abby's mother, Angela, and her 19-year old sister, Megan with whom Nev develops a virtual romance. But after a while Neve begins to suspect that Megan is who she claims to be, and with Henry and Ariel heads to Michigan to find out the truth.

The promo for Catfish makes it look like The Blair Witch Project for the Facebook generation – a story about naive young people who wander into the black forest of cyberspace and find something scary there. In fact it’s not that at all but rather a documenting (a more appropriate word than documentary) of a real online dalliance and what happens when it encounters the real world. Or at least that is what its makers are assiduously maintaining. The film has too much of the seamless convenience of fiction and the polish of professional film-making to convince as a piece of hey-we-just-got-lucky handicam film verité, The fact that co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are film-makers of some experience in a way can explain the skill but it also feeds the suspicion that there is just a little too much fabrication in what is supposed to be unfolding before our eyes. 

The sense of fabrication is most  evident once we leave the confined setting of the boys’ New York quarters and enter Angela’s Michigan domain. One of the very first shots is of Nev and Ariel meeting Angela and her partner Vince on the porch of her home. We can only partly see them as they are obscured by a post. The fact that this “error” might happen in any amateur home movie is exactly what suggests that it is a contrivance here. It is an instance of choreographed clumsiness in a film that both in terms of framing, lighting, sound and related technical aspects as well as the behaviour of the people involved suggest a well-rehearsed performance. Perhaps I am wrong (apparently it is a true story, with only some of the early scenes shot as recreations of what actually happened), but as this is the story of a woman who perpetrates a complicated hoax, it is not too much to transpose the real hoax to the film-makers themselves. Indeed with a film like I’m Still Here appearing on our screens last year the hoax film might be the next step beyond the now well-trod mockumentary style.

This ambiguity, perhaps even duplicity, takes nothing away from Catfish. Indeed it adds to the kudos of what is an impressively-made film. If it is true then it is story of amazing serendipity and extremely skilful editing. If it is not, it is a brilliantly constructed conceit, pulled off with marvellous savoir faire. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between and at least the latter part of the film is a reconstruction of factual events. In this respect the term “reality thriller” has been used to describe it and it is an apt term for there is a real tension to the narrative, achieved through plotting, dialogue and the use of music (and that trailer probably helps) even though there is no body to be found at the end of the trail.

Over-and-above the specifics of the story of Nev and his dalliance, the intrigue of Catfish stems from the fact that it pointedly taps into the illusory character of our internet age, using its defining and iconic phenomena, Facebook, YouTube and Google, to explore what “connectivity” means when more and more of our relationships move online and virtuality displaces reality. Whereas The Social Network left the actual technology pretty much on the periphery, here it is a key element, with nifty use being made of all three major applications to both depict and drive the narrative. Thus, part of the tension of the film ultimately derives from our natural, underlying fear of technology and its Frankensteinian effects on life as we know it. That this is achieved with such with low-key style and in such a modest form makes Catfish a quite remarkable film.




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