It’s been called a lot of things — documentary, reality thriller, the next Blair Witch, but what is it really? At a special free screening of Catfish at The Princess Theater last week, I reached a conclusion: It’s none of these. It’s simply a sad and slightly twisted digital love story that shows us something we don’t see enough of in cinema today: a little bit of humanity.
Catfish centers on Nev Schulman, a very personable and charismatic photographer who lives with two filmmakers, including his brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost, in New York. After a photograph of Nev’s winds up in a national publication, a talented 8-year-old girl named Abby notices it and sends Nev a painting replicating his piece.
Ariel and Henry decide to document the story of the two developing a unique pen pal type of relationship via Facebook and snail mail. This quickly evolves into a relationship with Abby’s family as well. Before long, Nev and Abby’s older sister, Megan, form a romantic Internet affair coupled with steamy text messages and intimate phone calls.
Their digital relationship is portrayed humorously with modest wit and playful banter by Nev and his filmmakers, but is quickly lost as Nev begins to have suspicions that Abby, Megan and the family with which he associated himself with for eight months are not everything they say they are.
Small holes start to form in their stories and we watch Nev’s disappointment grow when he realizes the girl he’s in love with is a liar, and possibly not even real. His filmmaking buddies encourage him to continue the relationship until they can get to the bottom of it, which they do when they travel to Abby and Megan’s home in Ishpeming, Mich.
SPOILER ALERT …
What Nev finds at the end of the tunnel is something very real: a middle-aged, heavyset woman named Angela who spends her time caring for her two severely mentally retarded stepsons. Wistful with her old dreams of becoming a discovered artist, Angela explains how she crafted an entirely new identity to escape her painstaking life and attempt to become “discovered.”
It’s during her confession that we’re slapped in the face with that bit of humanity. We should feel irritated and upset with the knowledge of this woman falsifying an entire persona that emotionally disappoints our protagonist Nev, but we don’t. Like Nev, we identify with Angela. Sharing in her guilty admission, we finally recognize the hardships of her life and understand the desperation and sadness in her actions.
In the end, we end up sympathizing with her. There is no resentment or anger, just the sad truth of what happens when we get old and lose sight of our dreams.