The statement “You can talk to anybody on the Internet” carries with it two distinct connotations. The Internet age has brought about—along with countless other positive changes—an unprecedented ease of communication, allowing families and friends to maintain bonds across the planet just for the price of a monthly Internet connection. Yet this technological miracle has a dark underbelly: because anyone can talk to absolutely anyone else on the Internet, “KewlGurl95” could really be a murderous sociopath who lurks in online chatrooms and wants to kidnap young children.
This nastier connotation forms an integral part of the advertising campaign for Catfish, the new documentary starring photographer Nev Schulman and directed by Henry Joost and Nev’s brother Ariel Schulman. The trailer, for example, features an unsettling Blair Witch Project-like scene in which the filmmakers follow Nev around a horse farm at night, and the poster features a red outline of a fish over a black background with the tagline “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.”
Catfish isn’t a horror film, as its marketing suggests, and begins innocently enough: someone from Michigan sends Nev an accurately rendered painting of one of his published photographs. He soon learns that the artist is an eight-year-old prodigy named Abby and develops an online relationship with her, her mother Angela, and her 19-year-old sister Megan. He and Megan in particular grow closer and closer, exchanging increasingly flirty and romantic messages over a period of nine months. However, halfway through the movie—without spoiling too much—Nev finds out that Megan’s story is starting to look dubious, and the ramifications of this discovery play out tensely and compellingly until the end credits.
Catfish is a smartly crafted documentary with an exhilarating story and a genuinely surprising final reveal. If the film has a central failing, however, it is that—despite the Google Maps transitions indicating the important locations and the quick flashes of IM transcripts that suture the movie together—Schulman and Joost don’t scrutinize the Internet age thoroughly enough. The movie falls short of truly defining the zeitgeist; it doesn’t go much deeper than its admittedly fascinating central mystery.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t imbue the story with the trite message of the “This could happen TO YOU!” variety. But what happened to Nev is so uniquely bizarre that the film lacks identifiable immediacy, and doesn’t really sink its teeth into the heart of this generation. For example, the catfish metaphor that gives the movie its title is disappointingly thin and doesn’t seem to elucidate the events of its story or its cultural context. Various critics have deemed The Social Network as the origin story of Facebook and Catfish as the story of its cultural consequences, but the former accomplishes the job of the latter much more effectively. However, as a piece of eminently watchable and compelling entertainment, Catfish is worth the ticket price.