As the newest Oscar-worthy releases descend upon us faithful moviegoers, it is clear that Hollywood has recognized the dearth of the social-networking movies. Not one, but two films have been reeled-out to plug this nagging void. While the Sorkin/Fincher The Social Network garners rave reviews for their motor-mouthed portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerbug, the “controversial” Catfish has swooped from its Sundance obscurity (if such a thing is even possible) to take its rightful place amongst the date-night divisive flicks.
What exactly is so controversial, so shocking about this film? I haven’t really figured that out quite yet. What is that huge twist, that spoiler that I am not supposed to reveal to friends? If you are expecting a Sixth Sense or a Usual Suspects identity-swap, then you will be sorely disappointed. The greatest identity perpetrator amongst the film is its marketing department.
Catfish follows Nev Schulman a young, handsome photographer living in the New York as he develops a Facebook relationship with an inappropriately aged girl in Michigan. The filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, train their lens on their loft-mate as he receives gifts both digital and brick mortar from this nascent genius. She apparently lives in a family that would give the Glass-clan a run for their money: painters, musicians, equestrians, all tucked away in this remote part of Michigan. And so the fantasy begins.
Nev’s late-night correspondences with Megan’s older sister via phone and text are all captured with an unflinching authenticity, yet they often play-out with a juvenile awkwardness that is closer to cringe-worthy than honest. Is this scripted?
There are, of course, holes in Meg’s story, the potential for her FB profile to be little more than imaginative cut-and-paste, so the trio of twenty-somethings who rolled out of a Ryan Mcginley Levi’s ad decide to ‘Go Forth’ and seek out the truth. What follows is a road-trip enhanced by the very tools used to create the online identity (screen-shots of google maps). The filmmakers miss an opportunity to truly capture the kind of desolation that would inspire such identity finagling. We see the world through a car window, and rather than creating the intimacy of a road-trip, the viewer is well aware of his/her outsider status. Sadly, this smacks of lazy cinematography, but why even concern oneself with such trivialities in the pursuit of truth?
To the filmmakers’ credit, the movie is not simply a game of “gotcha” journalism or an opportunity for the New York Intellectual to thumb its nose at a bunch of rubes. There is genuine sympathy, and some beautiful moments are captured. Because the film has been marketed as a digital-age ‘whodunit’ the distance for this viewer between the identity of the film and the reality of my 86 minutes begins to sadly play-out like a ‘whogivesashit’.
Catfish as a document of our digital age and how identity is created online is something worth seeing and preserving. But the shilling has trumped the content, no fault of the filmmakers. Expectations are the great killer of first-time counters, as this film well exhibits. Keep yours modest and you will enjoy.
Jonathan Lang is a film critic and writer. His graphic novel FEEDING GROUND is forthcoming in October from Archaia. You can follow him on twitter at @SwiftyLang