I’ll start by saying that I recommend this film to everyone. But believe the hype: Catfish is more than a movie; it’s a true cinematic experience that shouldn’t be tarnished by knowing any information about it before you embark on the film’s journey. I knew nothing about it going in (no actors, no genre, nada), and I can guarantee that’s the best approach to take here. Avoid the trailers, don’t read a plot synopsis, and certainly don’t read this review – go see the movie and then come back. Take your time – I’ll wait.
[Seriously – if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this. You’ll only ruin it for yourself. So, assuming you’ve seen the movie, consider the rest of the review spoiler-heavy.]
The most important question this film poses is not “were those events fabricated?” but rather “does it matter if they were fabricated?” There are doubts all across the internet about the credibility of Catfish as a straightforward documentary – I must admit, one of the first things I questioned after leaving the theater was how much of it was real – but after taking a step back, I think the film stands on its own regardless of its veracity.
The film took me on an emotional ride like very few movies have, and I’m grateful for the experience. Rel and Henry, the documentarians, do a fantastic job of providing a sense of intimacy with the audience, and Nev’s affable nature and willingness to interact with the camera really helps to build a comfortable relationship with us. He’s such a likable protagonist; it’s nearly impossible not to feel for him as he undergoes this incredible discovery. The scene in which he reads a text exchange between him and Megan is so genuinely funny (and seemingly real) that it instantly puts us even further in Nev’s camp. And I was genuinely worried for him during a scene in which they visit her barn at night. I don’t remember if there was a subtle music change during that sequence or if they cut the music out of that scene altogether; either way, it was very effective and had me clenching the armrests in the theater, preparing for the worst.
It’s interesting that Catfish nearly coincides with the release of David Fincher’s The Social Network, a movie detailing the rise of Facebook. I’m wondering if Catfish will actually be more about Facebook than The Social Network; if early trailers are any indication, it would appear the latter might revolve more around betrayals and behind-the-scenes dealings of one of the world’s biggest companies, leaving the site in the periphery. But Catfish is undoubtedly about Facebook itself, showcasing the site, and all manner of today’s technology – Google, YouTube, etc. – throughout the film: first, as a platform for a budding relationship; second, as an investigative tool used primarily for putting pieces together; and finally, as a tragic playground for empty avatars and shattered promises.
It’s the second depiction that’s the best part of the movie. When Nev, Rel, and Henry begin to uncover the truth, they utilize technology around them and the pace really picks up. Catfish shifts to a modern day mystery, swapping magnifying glasses and fingerprint dusters for Google Street Views and YouTube searches. As the trio add up more and more details, a suspenseful anxiety washes over the film.
And when the truth is revealed, it hits like a sledgehammer.
Perhaps the most interesting trick Catfish plays is the stylistic choice of using Facebook for identification. Profiles, pictures, comments, hovering mouse arrows revealing people’s names – all of these notions are not only called into question but outright negated by the final reveal. If nothing else, this film serves as a time capsule into a generation: a reminder for future societies of how we used connectivity for good and bad, for romance and boredom, for pleasure and escape. It’s also a very clear warning to those of us entrenched in this era of tech right now: don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and for the love of God – be careful out there.
For the record, I don’t think the whole movie was real. I think the filmmakers exploited Angela and her handicapped step-children to a degree, using them (and the rising unease the last act generates) to “prove” to the audience that what we’ve been seeing all along has been legitimate. There’s a great piece at Movieline that details a lot of their doubts, and I agree with most of them. A sequence at the end involving flashbacks to Nev saying certain things – about how Angela’s kids are awesome, “at least on Facebook,” etc. – struck me as a bit too perfectly orchestrated. Keep in mind, the filmmakers insist that everything is legitimate. My cynical outlook comes from a background working in reality television, where shows portrayed as “real” are most certainly not. I’d be interested to see where you come down on this, but like I said – it honestly doesn’t matter if it’s real or not because the movie is incredibly effective any way you look at it.
Please don’t equate my doubt of the film’s ultimate truth with a dislike for the movie. Catfish is a phenomenal experience and provides a piercing look into our generation, calling into question our blind acceptance of social media and allowing us a unique look at some of the people behind the profile pictures. Until next time…