Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
IF you’re nervous about the future of internet relationships
SEE Catfish for a romp with creative minds at work
BECAUSE fake takes on new meaning when multiples become norm
Three young men – two filmmakers and a photographer – catch the progression of an internet exchange en vivo, live on film beginning when the photographer receives an email from an eight-year-girl who asks his permission to send him a painting she’s made of one of his photographs that appeared in her local newspaper. The photographer, that would be Nev. The girl, Abby. The painting was quite good. It captured his curiosity and he agreed to friend her on Facebook.
The tale is a plot worth following but a more fascinating aspect is the way the film opens up a world where reality is caught and lost numerous times, challenging the characters and viewers to keep up with the truth. When the three men sense a cyberspace ruse being perpetrated on Nev, they opt to document it with ‘catch and release’ filming. They film a piece and throw it back to see what happens next. They know they’re not dealing with the truth but the truth they think they’re dealing with turns out not to be true either.
Just how many truths are there? On the other end of Nev’s line – be it online, cell phone line or a line of b.s. – is a storyteller with a fifth dimension. That would be the eight-year-old’s mother, Angela. Angela is a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in a remote region of northern Michigan with an atypical, albeit good-guy husband, two severely handicapped step-sons, their eight- year-old daughter and a computer. Master manipulator of cyberspace, Angela emotionally entangles Nev by turning her eight-year-old daughter into a believable child prodigy who sells her paintings for thousands of dollars and invents, out of whole cloth, a beautiful, flirty nineteen-year-old daughter of many talents who falls in love with Nev as only a smitten teen can.
At first, Nev goes a little weak in the brain from the idea that such a beauty would want him. He falls in love. As he takes the bait, the camera catches him enthralled and then sobered as he realizes she is – in fact – too good to be true. After Nev and his filmmaking buddies discover he’s being had, they agree to a ‘nothing like getting even’ plan. The young men set off in a car for Michigan to embarrass the nineteen-year-old who could not possibly be the beauty, the singer or the seductress she makes herself out to be. But the expose turns out to be a soulful look behind the curtain of Oz.
There’s no there there. Just a small house in the middle of nowhere with a family making do. Angela lives firmly in two worlds, fact and fantasy, making the best of one and creating stunning performance art out of the other. Cover blown, she slowly emerges from her lies as a hardworking woman with a deep heart, an unstoppable imagination and quite a gift with a paintbrush. As the three young men grapple with Angela’s unraveling story, their revenge fades and their hearts open. What they discover behind their expectations sets them back on their heels and we see a breadth and warmth of character in these three young men that is inspirational in our times.
No one gets hurt. But which is more real – fact or fantasy? Whichever we choose, this film makes the point that our reality is constantly shifting, morphing before our eyes with no bottom line and more characters active in every exchange than meets the eye. No wonder the reaching out, the suspension of disbelief. Beneath all the deception lies a buried truth, a deep desire to feel connected.
Why Catfish as a title? Might a catfish have anything to do with determining what reality we’re swimming in? At the end of the documentary, the good-guy husband of the storyteller adds a helpful two cents:
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”
In other words, Nev ‘nipped the fins’ of Angela, a highly creative woman hiding out in an upstairs bedroom across a sea of wireless space into public view as a rarely seen and even more rarely appreciated ‘everywoman’ wife and mother devoted to her family.
The identity of the storyteller – itself, herself, himself – still isn’t completely known at the end of the film. Could Nev and his two buddies have made the whole thing up?
As the film ends we nip at Catfish, question its veracity. And if we turn the Catfish quest for truth on ourselves, we’ll keep “guessing and thinking” about the line between truth and fantasy. A teenage girl once said to me, “I think I’m getting this life thing. You just make it up as you go along.” What else could I say but “Uh huh” with an empathetic, quizzical smile and wonder how many identities she was going to explore in the next fifty years.