It's hard to describe Catfish without giving too much away. And, really, the mystery of the film and the surprise it produces are fascinating -- so much so that you can overlook the film's weaknesses.
Most of those have to do with the low-rez imagery, produced by grab-what's-at-hand equipment used to shoot this funny, spooky documentary. Filmed on the fly with everything from high-priced digital equipment to Flip cameras (or the equivalent), Catfish has an in-the-moment feel, like a story whose tellers weren't sure where it was going or what they had while they were shooting it. You get the sense that they didn't necessarily know they were making a movie, so much as simply recording bits of their daily life.
The film's hook is an online relationship that developed between photographer Nev Schulman and a girl in Michigan's upper peninsula. An amateur painter, she emailed to ask his permission to make a painting from a dance photograph of his that she'd seen on the Web.
Her name is Abby and she's 8. But the painting she sends him is actually quite good -- and not just good for an 8-year-old. Before long, she's mailing him more paintings, corresponding by email and, eventually, through MySpace.
Before he knows it, Nev is caught up with her whole family -- particularly her foxy older sister Megan, who grows increasingly flirtatious with Nev in their online correspondence and, later, phone calls. We know this because the filmmakers are Nev's brother, Ariel, and Ariel's partner, Henry Joost. They're documentarians who start chronicling Nev's interaction with the girl and her sister.
It seems too good to be true, but Nev is in New York and Abby and Megan are in Michigan, so the relationship seems harmless. Then Nev catches Megan in what seems to be a lie. Even then, he is unprepared for where this all leads.
And that's all I can say about the story.
There was a cartoon in the New Yorker a few years ago: two canines, sitting at a computer, with one saying to the other, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Which captures what this film is about, without giving too much away.
Put it this way: The Internet has produced a revolution in communication that has already swamped the world. Some refer to its effect as democratization; others see it as fantasy fulfillment because, really, you can pretend to be whomever you want behind the anonymity of screen names.
Thus we have the idea of "friends" on Facebook and MySpace -- people you've never met with whom you suddenly share the intimate details of your life. And, in turn, they share them with you. But you can only vouch for the veracity of your own posts -- and you assume at your own risk that others are as truthful as you. Or, perhaps, you've learned differently.
In any case, the false intimacy of the Internet has skewed interpersonal relations in ways whose impact is still being felt. And that's the real subject of Catfish.
The film already has provoked controversy over just how truthful the film itself is. Some have lumped it together with Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, as examples of films that appear to be documentaries but which, in fact, may be something else altogether.
I choose to believe in Catfish, as an actual exercise in nonfiction. Truth is so much stranger than fiction and this film has the ring of truth. And it's also just plain fascinating.