Film review by: Witney Seibold
Nev Schulman is a handsome and naïve twentysomething living in the big city, working as a dance photographer, and sharing an office with his documentarian brother Rel Schulman, and Rel’s associate Henry Joost. When Nev received a painting in the mail of one of his photos, recently published in the New York Times, he begins to seek out a rapport with the artist, an 8-year-old girl named Abby living in Michigan. Abby and Nev talk a lot, and Nev becomes good friends with Abby and Abby’s mother Angela, communicating online and by phone. They become friend on Facebook, and Nev soon enters the social circle of Abby and Abby’s family.
Most notably, Nev becomes close friends with Abby’s attractive older sister Megan. It’s not long before Nev is having romantic phone conversations with Megan, editing himself into photographs with her, and even occasionally exchanging naughty text messages. Megan seems to be the perfect woman. She can play guitar, sing well, ride horses, and is even at age 19, going to buy her own ranch in Michigan. Nev is smitten.
So far, “Catfish” is a film about ambitious artists finding one another, establishing a rapport, and inspiring one another to create. More subtly, it’s about how people relate to one another in the modern ages of social networks, telephones and electronic media. It’s easy for the savvy viewer to see, though, that a shoe is about to drop. Nev is a charming guy, but using Photoshop to edit yourself into a picture with your intended ladylove? Isn’t that a little high school-ish? The audience can see the unlikely perfection of Megan, but Nev, caught up in the moment, is willing to believe it.
Eventually, on a trip to Colorado, the film’s two directors and Nev find themselves in a position to drop in on Megan, Angela and Abby, and surprise them. I don’t know what they expect to find, but I don’t think I’m revealing too much when I tell you that they don’t find what they’ve been told. The rest of the filmis how Nev and Rel and Henry react to the reality they find.
This is a frustrating film to write about, as I don’t want to give away any vital details about Megan, Abby, or the beleaguered Angela, but I will say the following:
In this age of increased electronic communication, and faceless “friending” on social networks, real human communication seems to have become a thing that can be manipulated by the speaker. Are you a real person, or are you just a series of interests and photos compiled to make you look more interesting? We have entered a phase where who you are is defined by your online profile. This is hardly a new concept, but “Catfish” is the most stirring example I have seen of online social manipulation.
At the heart of “Catfish” is the beating heart of loneliness and a desperate grasp toward the light that I found heartbreaking and terrifyingly relatable. Both Nev and his online compatriots seemed to be in a position of desperate need for acceptance. Nev needed someone to recognize his work, and he was just the right age to accept all praise, no matter where it came from. Megan, or her true self (sorry again to be so vague) was in need of a human being who treated her like a friend and a lover, who lived an exotic, artistic life. This is a tale of people who grasp out of their acknowledged or unacknowledged loneliness to find a kindred spirit, and are both disappointed with the result.
At the end of the film, I was surprised at how little animosity there was, although Nev himself seemed a little hurt at the revelations. I was far more interested in the fate of Megan and where her life was going to go. The film tells you what she’s up to these days, and… well it’s tempting to find her online, isn’t it?