Movie Review: Catfish

By Peter Calder

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Ariel (left) and Nev Schulman, in a scene from the documentary 'Catfish.' Photo / Supplied
Ariel (left) and Nev Schulman, in a scene from the documentary 'Catfish.' Photo / Supplied

There are intriguing questions raised by this, the first feature-length film born of Facebook (The Social Network, which chronicled Facebook's birth, was about the phenomenon rather than of it). But its makers, either unwittingly, because they are dim, or deliberately, because they are even dimmer, don't so much as pause to contemplate them.

The film has been widely derided as an elaborate concoction, rather than a documentary. That's a possibility, no doubt, though anybody looking for the sly self-mockery of Exit Through the Gift Shop won't find it here. As a hoax, it lacks the point of view that distinguishes satire from mindless mimicry. Yet regarding it as a genuine documentary is possibly even more depressing.

It's the "story" of New York photographer Nev Shulman, the younger brother of one of the film-makers, who "friends" a young girl named Abby, an apparent artistic prodigy, living with her family in rural Michigan. The friendship, which unfolds before the camera, leads to Nev's amicable online communication with Abby's mother, Angela, and, soon after, a cyberflirtation with Megan, Abby's older sister, whose Facebook pictures are alluring to say the least.

As things warm up, Nev gets cold feet and asks his brother and the co-director Joost to abandon the project. But they persuade him to keep going - and the three of them, almost on a whim, drive north to meet Abby and her family.

To say that there is a major - though not entirely unpredictable - surprise awaiting them is not to give nothing away. But it's what happens next that's interesting, because it undermines any claim they might make to artistic integrity. Their discoveries become the pretext for a sustained exercise in voyeurism that might be less sickly if the film were chronicling anything worth staring at. But, assuming you want to look rather than look away, you may find it hard to see past the film-makers' smugness and condescension.

Social networks have remade the way in which we relate to each other and the benefits, dangers and philosophical implications are rich, raw material for moviemakers. But it's tempting to conclude that the really interesting things this film says, its makers are not even aware of, and that the studio blurb that describes the film as "a shocking product of our times" is far more accurate than it means to be.

Stars: 2/5
Directors: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
Running time: 87 mins
Rating: M (sexual references)
Verdict: Witless, smug and faintly sickening.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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