January 16, 2011

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish is one of the bigger documentaries of the year, propelled to internet infamy by an ongoing debate over the film’s authenticity.  The film played the festival circuit to much critical acclaim and passed through theaters late last year, but now that it’s hit DVD, those of you who weren’t able to find a nearby theater (or festival) screening the film are free to discover whether or not Catfish is your cup of tea.  Is it worth picking up, and does the film’s “truthfulness” even matter?  Find out after the jump:

I was lucky enough to catch Catfish (no pun intended; if that’d been intended, I would be publicly calling for my own execution) earlier this year at a special screening put together by Ain’t It Cool News at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin.  The screening was attended by the film’s stars (and two directors), Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and the film’s lead, Nev Schulman.  Heading into the film, I knew absolutely nothing, having followed the advice of all the other reviews I’d read thus far warning me away from spoiling anything for myself.  I’d seen the trailer, listened to the brief introduction offered by Harry Knowles prior to the film…but that was it.  I really didn’t know what to expect.

About an hour later, I looked to my right and left and saw the same thing on both sides:  everyone in the theater was literally sitting at the edge of their seats, elbows on those long tables that sit in front of the audience at the Drafthouse, breath held.  When the film finally wrapped, the three men responsible for the film walked back out in front of the audience to a massive round of applause and answered a few questions– just a few– about what we’d just seen.  The question, of course, was…what had we just seen?  That was the question everyone had upon seeing the film, and a cursory glance around the ‘net seems to indicate that others are still having this conversation.

What is Catfish?  Is it–as advertised– a documentary?  A mockumentary minus the laughs?  Something in-between?  An elaborate hoax?  While it’s possible to discuss Schulman and Joost’s film without giving anything away (which is what I’ll strive to do here, because Catfish really deserves every “virgin” audience member that it can get), it’s impossible to discuss the film without at least mentioning the film’s reality.  It may have everything to do with your enjoyment of the film, or it may have nothing to do with your enjoyment of the film…but rest assured, at some point you’ll be called upon to state your position from others who’ve seen it.

Here’s what I think:  it doesn’t really matter.  Catfish is a great, great movie, and anyone that tells you otherwise is simply hating on the uncertainty that surrounds the film’s authenticity.  I’ve had conversations– well, maybe not “conversations” in the classical sense:  it’d be more appropriate to say “I’ve read a series of all-caps, poorly-spelled emails yelling about…”– about the film since I wrote that first review based on the Drafthouse screening where people just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that Catfish is, simply put, a hell of an entertaining movie.  The common complaint is that I’ve been “suckered” by the film’s stated position– its reality– and that I’m cheering the effects caused by a successful hoax, not a film.

This isn’t the case.  Taken as a movie– and nothing more (which I don’t)– Catfish is a great piece of entertainment.  You may guess where it’d headed from the get-go, but anyone that tells you they knew precisely how it’d turn out is just lying through their teeth.  Who could have predicted that…or that it’d turn out that…or that they’d…and so on.  No, no one “predicted” Catfish, but there’s an endless supply of people who will tell you they did.  Half of them will say that they found the film to be enormously effective, tense, even scary, while the other half will tell you that it’s overblown, overly-dramatic nonsense.  Separate yourself from the ongoing discussion about the film’s truth, though, and you’re left with what I thought was a very well-made, cleverly-edited, compulsively watchable film.  The term “Hitchcockian” gets tossed around a little too much these days, but I’d place Catfish firmly in the “Hitchockian” category.
What’s it all about?  Well, Nev Schulman is a photographer/hipster-type living in NYC.  When he’s put in touch with a little girl who’s produced an oil painting based on one of his photos, he commences a relationship with her extended family that unfolds entirely across their Facebook pages, Skype, and the iPhone’s texting function.  The whole relationship gains traction when he starts communicating with the girl’s older sister, a girl named Megan, and then it snowballs into a full-blown long-distance relationship.  Nev finds himself falling in love with a woman he’s never met, caring about her entire family, and– naturally– he wants to meet her (and them).  Every attempt he makes to meet Megan gets waylaid, though, and eventually a series of events conspires to provoke Nev, his brother Ariel, and their friend Henry (who’ve been taping this entire thing) to jump in a car and head to the address that all of Megan’s snail-mail letters have been arriving from.

What they find there– and what they do about it– makes up the final half-hour or so of the film, and it’s a roller-coaster to sit through.

Again, I can’t tell you whether or not the film’s plot is “real”, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know– for sure– whether or not Joost and the Schulmans have been honest about the film they’ve made.  I can tell you, however, that it’s very convincing, and that I don’t have a lot of trouble believing it:  coincidentally, I had a similar situation occur years ago, and while the outcome wasn’t precisely the same as the one we see in Catfish, it was very close…and just as disturbing.  Stuff like this does happen, and I’m the walking, talking proof of it.  Whether or not Catfish is further proof will be up to you to decide, but I think that any further discussion of that aspect of the film is just…tedious.

And why get hung up on the magician’s methods when the trick’s so damn entertaining?  That audience in the Drafthouse wasn’t a fluke:  when Collider sent me the DVD for review, I screened it for a roomful of people that hadn’t seen the film yet, and all of them were just as absorbed.  Of course, these weren’t people that moonlight as angry-comment-leaving, obnoxious, internet-based douchebags, so– depending on your affiliations with that group– your experience may differ.  But I can tell you that I’m 2-for-2 in terms of watching Catfish work its magic on an audience, and I was caught up in the film’s excellent editing, musical cues, and sheer entertainment value during both viewings.  If it ain’t real, it’s a damn good forgery, so just enjoy it on that level and leave the debates to the forum-dwellers of the world.

While I wholeheartedly recommend the film and encourage everyone to see it at least once, I’ve gotta admit to being let-down by the DVD’s special features.  Scratch that:  “Special feature”.  There’s nothing on the disc except a Q&A with the filmmakers.  The Schulmans and Joost sit in director’s chairs and answer questions written on notecards while addressing an unseen audience and the camera, and the questions don’t really yield any startling information.  When I saw the film with these three at the Drafthouse, they told a story about what it was like when they met the Megan that appears in all of Megan’s photos (you’ll know what I mean when you see it), and the story was absolutely captivating.  During that Q&A, they said that video of this meeting would appear on the eventual DVD release…but it’s not there.  Also not there?  A number of other moments or scenes that the group has referred to in interviews and– most maddeningly– on the DVD’s Q&A feature.

Yes, they’re referring to material that will appear “on the second disc” or “on the DVD”…which doesn’t appear on the DVD…while you’re watching the DVD.  It’s very frustrating, and seems to indicate one of two things:  either the Schulmans and Joost are straight-up bullshitting about the existence of the extra footage and moments that they’re referring to…or there’s a double-dip in the works.  One doesn’t like to believe that the filmmakers are bullshitting the audience, though, while it also seems unlikely that Catfish is the type of film that will warrant a multi-DVD release.  Who knows what to believe?

Look, there’s so much to love about Catfish, I can’t help but ignore the debate about its authenticity.  I’m not interested in that, frankly.  If I found out that the whole thing was an elaborate prank today I’d still recommend it:  Catfish is extremely compelling, endlessly interesting, relatable, and– if you believe that it’s true– operates as one helluva cautionary tale for the Facebook generation.  It’s not the best documentary released last year (that honor still belongs to Exit Through The Gift Shop) but it’s a close second.

Catfish gets my stamp of approval.

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