Don't let anyone tell you what it is.

Just a few weeks ago, David Fincher’s masterful The Social Network confronted prevalent issues of social media and authenticity with regard to the truth of Facebook’s creation. In a different though no less arresting fashion, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s speculative documentary Catfish, which was a smash hit at Sundance this year, is about a very different kind of truth, of how Facebook and indeed the smoke screen created by the Internet in general can allow grand opportunities for deception. The tale even dares to go further, not only confronting the truth of the story itself, but also whether it is in fact a story at all. Though almost certainly an expertly-woven faux-doc like Joaquin Phoenix’s transfixing I’m Still Here, the directors of Catfish, unlike Casey Affleck, refuse to admit it (though the ambiguity is enough for the Academy not to give it a second look).

Nev Schulman (Yaniv Schulman) has been conversing on Facebook with an eight-year-old child prodigy named Abby, who creates elaborate, brilliant paintings of Nev’s photographs. Nev soon discovers that Abby has an attractive older sister named Megan, and in the pursuit of a relationship with her, his media type brother Ariel and friend Henry document their various online exchanges. However, when some inconsistencies emerge in Megan’s story, the trio decide to travel to Michigan to uncover the truth.
In both style and narrative, Catfish is a film deeply immersed in and a product of the culture it is exploring (moreso than The Social Network, which best exhibited its late-day electronic influence through Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ blistering score). The fast-paced style of zooming in on Nev’s computer screen to quickly convey correspondence between himself and “the Facebook family” early on befits the expedient nature of the technology. Meanwhile, Google Maps, a brilliant time lapse of Google Street View and various shots of GPS devices are used to depict the film’s road trip portion and convey how integral these applications have come to how we live our lives.

Despite its inherent gimmick, Catfish is not short on interesting characters, most of all Nev; he is not gullible yet, perhaps more scarily, he is very much invested in the idea of social networking as an authentic commodity. Facebook allows penetrating methods and levels of communication, but obviously it also invites snooping (for, as our protagonist gets wind of some discrepancies, he is as cagey as a private investigator), and ultimately, its unverifiable nature allows the film’s grand deception to occur (which, as the poster pleads, will not be spoiled here). In basic terms, it is a tale of a group of young guys from the web generation who get tripped up by the very thing that they take for granted; the free and instantly accessible nature of not only encyclopedic information like that which appears on Wikipedia, but also the glimpses allowed into the personal lives of people, who may themselves have their own agendas. No matter how great a resoruce is, it is always going to be trumped by poor  moderation – both a good and a bad facet, as is the interminable quandry. We feel for Nev; he seems genuinely upset when he gets an inkling early on that things aren’t right, and interestingly, he is not – as most doc subjects are – particularly complicit in the filming (it kind of snowballs), and when it begins to become an embarassing situation for him, he doesn’t like the intrusiveness. Though clearly positioned as a warning against this sort of willing submission to such spurious information, it does not make a hapless scapegoat or one-dimensional martyr out of Nev.

The film’s second half is a hunt for the truth as they seek physical verification of their theory, creating a surprisingly very tense experience, with the soundtrack muted down to all but a subtle drone, and the recurring thought of those trailer blurbs ringing incessantly in the back of the mind. The obvious resolution, perhaps too obvious from the trailer, is that they are to encounter a deranged psychopath, but of course, it is reasonable to anticipate that this is merely an act of misdirection. Nothing is going to be said of the truth here – that is not one’s position as a critic – but just that the film deftly blends a variety of emotions surprisingly well, dealing with great concern and also draining plenty of hilarity from the inherent likeability of the lads (particularly as Nev bares his soul and reads some of his most steamy dialogues with Megan).

Great pains have also been made to make the big reveal technologically plausible; with the hidden mics and secret video cameras, it has all of the thrill and stake of a high-budget suspense thriller. Equally compelling is their attempt to come to terms with what they discover, both with regard to what they should do, and what is in fact morally right. The kids’ admiration for how they have been played is at once itself fascinating and disturbing, though this itself raises several unsettling questions late in the game about the nature of the doc; it is uncomfortable enough that it will be regarded as crassly exploitative by many if it is a work of artifice, but whatever the nature of its construction, it is cruelly effective.

There is more humanity and less cheap shocks than the advertising may suggest; Catfish is ultimately a tantalising cautionary tale on the deceptive power of the Internet, and it is an undeniably potent, gripping work.


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