This week I am debuting a movie column that will cover all aspects of the film industry. Whether it’s reviews, news or simply an observation, I will cover it for your reading pleasure. In this first edition, I will be reviewing a little seen independent film that has suddenly been put back in the spotlight thanks to a highly-publicized Internet hoax.
The term “Catfishing” online has been thrust into the lexicon this week amidst news of a Notre Dame football scandal where it was discovered that star linebacker Manti Te’o's deceased girlfriend Lennay Kekua never existed. Te’o said in a statement that he was the victim of “a sick joke” – that he was duped by online predators into believing Kekua was real. It’s only been a couple of days since this story broke, but we may soon learn the truth as Te’o is scheduled to give his first interview Friday. It’s a story that has become so big and so juicy that Lance Armstrong should be personally thanking each and every person involved.
But where does this term “Catfishing” come from? The answer is a 2010 documentary, and now an MTV show, about one man’s strange journey into the heart of online chat-room darkness.
The tag-line for the film Catfish is “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” Another piece of advice should have been, don’t watch the trailer because you’ll be thinking about it as you watch the movie.
The notion that a trailer misrepresents or misinterprets what a movie is really about isn’t surprising. The job of a movie trailer is to sell the movie so people go see it. But in the case of Catfish, the trailer marketed it as a mysterious -is-it-real-or-fake documentary thriller about a young New Yorker searching for his Facebook crush. The first half of the movie kind of sets it up as that. Sort of a Blair Witch Project for the Internet generation. But as the movie nears its conclusion, it doesn’t scare you. It only cautions you about the world we live in. Where not everyone is who they say they are online.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman decide to make a documentary about Ariel’s brother Nev. Nev is a 24-year-old photographer who specializes in shooting dancers. One day Nev receives a package of a painting someone has done of one of his published photographs. It’s from an 8-year-old girl named Abby. The painting is remarkable and Nev begins to correspond with Abby and her mother Angela. The fact that Henry and Ariel decided to make a documentary about Nev and right when they start to make the film, Nev receives the painting from Abby seems like too big of a coincidence and basically sets up the question of whether or not this actually happened to them.
Nev receives many more paintings of his photographs and over the course of 9 months, he forms a friendship with Abby’s family through Facebook. At some point he becomes particularly interested in Abby’s 19-year-old sister Megan. They become very close through the Internet and over the phone. Megan writes music for Nev, he flirts with her through text messages and eventually he wonders if this is the girl of his dreams. An opportunity opens up for him to be close enough to see her in person.
The three videographers fly to Vail, Colorado to shoot a dance event. On their way back East, they decide to take a detour to meet Megan and the family in Ishpeming, Michigan. It’s time to put a face with the voice over the phone and all of the pictures online. To say everything goes the way they thought it would is an understatement so I won’t reveal anything further.
The film can be frustrating at times because you’re fooled into expecting one movie, and getting another. When the three men start to realize that something isn’t quite right with Angela’s family, the movie becomes an interesting procedural where they use technology in an attempt to uncover the truth. But by the end you may feel unsatisfied and slightly disappointed with what they discover. The final act is dramatically affective and depending on what type of person you are, you’ll either find it sad or slightly disturbing.
Ultimately, the film is an engaging and fascinating commentary on identity and the life we present online and the life we actually live. The film is never boring and the characters, particularly Nev, are likable. The film was marketed as a mysterious thriller and even the title, Catfish, is mysterious. By the end you’ll know the meaning behind the title and while it will come across as thoughtful and deep, it may also feel a little contrived and artificial. But that’s really the whole movie in a nutshell and the question you’re asking yourself as you watch it. Is it completely original and real or is it a hoax acting as a metaphor about how we want other people to see us versus who we actually are?
In the wake of the Te’o story, curiosity in Catfish might go up exponentially. While I may not have loved the film, I’m still thinking about it and that’s always a good enough reason to recommend people see it.
Catfish is available on Netflix disc, Blockbuster and Redbox.