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Catfish: Creepy Lie or Touching Tale of Humanity?

12/30/2010 11:43 am 11:43:07 | Updated May 25, 2011

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I can't stop thinking about Catfish, the buzzed-about documentary that follows a New York photographer who begins corresponding with a family in Ishpeming, Michigan.

Catfish is one of those rare films you have to let settle into your psyche for a while, but it's completely different from what I imagined. Everything I'd read about the movie had "thriller" in the description, so I fully expected the filmmakers to succumb to a bloody demise courtesy of an axe murderer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Instead, I got a touching story of humanity, lost dreams and renewed hope in a sea of despair.

The story begins in late 2007, as New York-based filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost begin filming a documentary about Ariel's brother, Nev, an amiable, 20-something photographer who shares an office with them. Nev begins emailing with Abby, an eight-year-old girl from Ishpeming who sends him paintings she's done of his photographs. These aren't just any paintings, though; they're nice works of art that seem far beyond the level of most eight-year-olds.

That should have been my first tip-off that something was amiss, but I grew up in Michigan, too, about 280 miles south of Ishpeming. I don't know if it's a Michigan thing or a Jane thing, but when people tell me things, I tend to believe them. Why would they lie? What good does it do? Then again, maybe we all lie to some extent. Maybe sometimes it's our only escape from reality. Read on.

Soon enough, Nev begins corresponding with Abby's relatives -- her mom Angela Wesselman and her half-sister Megan Faccio. By all accounts, both of them are nice-looking women. Abby sends Nev a painting of Angela, a portrait of a stunning woman sporting a long braid and a dancer's body. Likewise, Megan's Facebook photos look like she stepped out of an Old Navy ad. Nev begins talking to these women on the phone and even enters into a cyber-romance with Megan, but Abby is never available when he calls. That should have been tip-off number two, but again, I'm trusting.

Still, the film is starting to take on a creepy tone, made even creepier when Nev, Ariel and Henry decide to drive to Ishpeming to check things out for themselves. Still, I'm willing to believe that things will turn out ok, even as their trip reveals one lie after another. If you haven't seen the movie and wish to remain spoiler-free, you might want to stop reading here.

It never occurred to me that the filmmakers might be playing with the truth here. Did they, as some reviewers surmise, know all along that things weren't as they seemed? If so, why did Nev venture into a relationship with Megan? Was it simply for the sake of the film? Being a gullible Michigander, I'm still willing to believe that he was figuring things out just as the audience was at this point in the movie.

Maybe it's because the shots of Ishpeming could have been any small Michigan town. Abby's new "art gallery" that Angela gushed about was in a former J.C. Penney building. The State Theatre where I saw the movie is just down the street from a former J.C. Penney building in downtown Traverse City.

If you're still reading and really, really wish to remain spoiler-free, I'm begging you to stop reading here. I have to find out how those of you who've seen Catfish feel about how Nev reacted when he learned that 1) Angela was the painter, not Abby; 2) there was no art gallery; and 3) there was no Megan.

Nev could have reacted badly, slamming Angela for her deceit and storming off down US-41 on his way back to New York with Ariel and Henry. Instead, he was heartfelt and graceful as he gently nudged the truth out of the soft-spoken, middle-aged woman whose dreams died long ago.

As Nev told Henry and Ariel, they weren't there to destroy this family -- they were there to learn the truth. Things got even more touching when they realized that Angela was, in fact, using them to play out her own fantasies of becoming a dancer -- a dream she'd abandoned forever when she married husband Vincent and began caring for his two severely disabled sons -- grown men still in diapers. She'd created this elaborate web of Facebook personalities and even used a different voice when talking as "Megan" on the phone to Nev.

Ok, that's a little creepy, but hey, she's got a tough life up there in the North Woods. Let's cut her some slack. And aren't we all Angela to some degree? I'm guessing most people have experienced a few missteps and abandoned dreams in their life.

I guess the final question of whether Catfish is real or not lies in Vincent's missive at the end, where he's talking about how catfish are sometimes shipped with codfish for the purpose of nipping at them and keeping them stirred up during the journey. First, Vincent doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would come up with a theory like that, but shame on me for stereotyping him as just an overgrown kid who needs to be taken care of like his disabled sons. Maybe he's a really smart guy who's just doing his best to provide for his family.

I also wonder who the catfish is in this movie -- Angela or Nev? I look forward to your thoughts.