It's difficult to discuss a movie like Catfish without first acknowledging the controversy surrounding its release and promotion...and while we won't delve too deeply into that here, it does seem contextually significant. Since its Sundance purchase, much has been made of the film's supposed "truth problem," and the is-it-or-isn't-it questions that have swirled around its status as a genuine documentary. This has been exacerbated by the filmmakers' insistence that the movie is "real," and by the studio's "Not based on a true story...just true" tagline.
What I'll say is that when I saw the trailer, I just assumed it was a "faux documentary" without thinking twice — and I can't help but think that the studio, with its clear Blair Witch influence, was intentionally vague in not making that distinction explicit. Of course, "real" and "true" are objective terms, and I took the tagline to mean, "There is truth to this film," rather than, "These events were not prefabricated."
I also knew that, after having seen the trailer, I didn't want to read or hear anything more about Catfish before watching it, so I saw the film oblivious to the growing fuss around its authenticity. I'm fairly certain that my mindset going in — that it was a given the movie wasn't a straight-ahead doc — made my viewing experience a more positive one than it would've otherwise been, had I known the filmmakers were defending it as "100 percent true."
I'll reveal my personal bias and say that it seems a little too coincidental that a film concerned entirely with what's real and what isn't just happened to get a lot of press about whether or not it was real; I don't believe that Catfish is a "real" documentary (whatever that actually means), but I also don't think that that at all takes away from it as a film. I can understand people being rankled by what appears to be a ruse, but frankly, those folks are taking the bait. Gimmicky or not, Catfish is an effective movie — namely, one about a group of friends...being rankled by what appears to be a ruse.
Co-directed with occasionally motion-sickness-inducing handheld camerawork by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the pair choose to make Ariel's brother and roommate Nev the focus of a film project after Nev begins an interesting correspondence. A New York-based photographer, Nev receives a painting of one of his recently published photos in the mail from Abby, a young girl in Michigan, and subsequently exchanges emails with Abby's mother, Angela.
As their correspondence continues, Nev strikes up a long-distance friendship with Angela and Abby, as well as other family members, including Abby's older half-sister, Megan. Through phone conversations and various social media communication, Joost and Schulman document Nev and Megan's budding relationship. But as cracks start to form in the veneer of who Megan has presented herself to be, Nev plans a face-to-face confrontation with Megan and her family, culminating in a revealing trip to Michigan. What we eventually find there may not come as a shock, but where the story goes is certainly surprising.
The Schulmans and Joost are a likeable group of guys, and much of the footage feels like a genuine documentation of friends spending time and cracking jokes together. Catfish enages viewers by establishing this laid-back environment, then holds our interest by managing to build to a legitimately heart-pounding climax. By turns funny, creepy, suspenseful, awkward, exploitative, and sad, the film is certainly an emotional roller coaster.
It may be telling that many of the year's best movies were about the nature of reality as it's presented (Black Swan, Inception, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Shutter Island, among others), or how social media can effect that reality (The Social Network). Nev Schulman, probably like much of his audience, is rarely without his iPhone, Facebook, YouTube, or Google Maps, and while a "Does the internet really connect us?" message would be easy, Catfish goes for something more substantive. It's about inter-connectedness, sure, but it's ultimately a touching film that explores relationships and portrayed personas, self-delusion and real friendship. And it does so truthfully.