Note: All of my film reviews contain plot “spoilers,” so consider yourself forewarned.
Catfish is a great example of a film that could’ve been so much more, had it been made by more mature directors, but it’s also a perfect example of what’s missing from the media culture in which the fry are steeped these days.
It’s a claustrophobic, naval-gazing little cinema verité documentary directed by New Yorkers Henry Joost and Ariel and Yaniv (Nev) Schulman, starring the latter brother as himself, a 24-year-old photographer duped by what appears to be a family of internet pen pals. The brood’s mom, Angela, sees online a lovely photo of two dancers Nev has published in a New York magazine and ships him a package containing a painting of the photo that her 8-year-old daughter, Abby, has made for him. Ariel chronicles Nev’s growing friendship with the artistic prodigy and her family, including Abby’s older brother and 19-year-old sister, Megan, both of whom are musicians. Relationships escalate, as they’re wont to do with the aid of Facebook, texting, tweeting, and the rest of the electronic ocean, and Nev is soon immersed in an online romance with Megan.
Things start to go awry early on, while the three young men are on location filming and photographing the Vail International Dance Festival. It seems Megan is lying about her singing and songwriting abilities; as the boys sit at a Colorado kitchen table noodling around on their laptops, Nev discovers that his lovely young correspondent is stealing her cover versions from YouTube. The men decide to investigate by taking a detour on their way home from Vail, flying into Chicago, renting a car, and driving to Megan and her family’s homes in Michigan. The road trip is rather tediously detailed, with help from various cameras, Google Earth, and a GPS screen. The guys arrive at Megan’s horse farm around 2:30 a.m. and aren’t surprised to see that her name isn’t on the mailbox and no horses are in the barn, but Nev seems stunned that Megan didn’t bother to drive out to the property and pick up the postcards he’s sent her.
He’s even more shocked the next day when the trio meets Angela and her real family (the other two guys equip him with a hidden mic to record every gory detail for their little film) and he discovers that Angela looks nothing like her online picture and she’s “like, 40 or something!” This is where the film loses its fun mystery-story edge and turns sad. Angela really is married to a man named Vince (who also looks nothing like his online pic) and they do have an 8-year-old named Abby, but the child is baffled by questions about her painting. Nev stops just short of badgering her, and he’s gentle with her mother, despite his feeling duped. In fact, all three of the directors are restrained in their filmmaking when they could’ve been cruel. They reveal Angela as someone with just-better-than-amateur drawing talent caught between her girlhood dreams of becoming a dancer, horsewoman, or painter and the reality of her daily life with Abby, Vince, and his severely mentally and physically disabled twin sons. She spends her days spoon-feeding and changing diapers on two men roughly Nev’s age, and the filmmakers are simultaneously unflinching and kind in their portrayal of this family – not an easy feat.
But like what we all view on the internet, Catfish shows only the surface, the fast drive through the town of Ishpeming, the contents of one lightning visit to the Upper Peninsula. Here’s where Joost and the Schulman brothers show their age and inexperience: they fail to excavate the layers beneath the contrast between their fast-paced careers in New York City and Angela’s and Vince’s lives in a rural region of an economically crumbling Midwestern state. As Michael Moore has shown in several of his documentaries, his home state has been devastated by the failure of the automobile industry to support its workers and the havoc wreaked by corporations operating in a system of global economic neoliberalism. It wouldn’t have taken much more than a few shots of downtown Ishpeming, and a few more questions about what the place was like when Angela and Vince grew up there, for Joost and the Schulmans to have demonstrated the connections between Angela’s fantasy life on the internet and the death of the American dream.
Or maybe I’ve been watching too many Michael Moore movies, and that’s just too face-to-face and not Facebook enough.