Film review: Catfish
A fresh take on an old tale impresses Duncan Wu, but leaves him with misgivings about exploitation
Released on 17 December in the UK
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Ariel Schulman and Yaniv Schulman
They're psychopaths!" says Nev, the young man at the centre of Catfish, who meets with an unexpected surprise as he gets to know a woman he has been chatting with over the internet. When I first arrived in America, I did some internet dating and am relieved to say never met a psychopath, or at least anyone who revealed themselves as such. I did meet an unusual woman whose profile consisted entirely of the text of William Wordsworth's Daffodils. She didn't turn out to be a poetry lover, but that, as the poet would have put it, is matter for another day.
To the best of my knowledge, Catfish is the first feature-length documentary to take the viewer into the murky world of internet dating. It follows Nev, a good-looking twentysomething New Yorker, who one day receives a painting, allegedly by an eight-year-old girl in the Midwest, of a photograph he had published in a newspaper. He makes friends with the girl on Facebook and acquaints himself with the rest of her family, including her older, slinky sister Megan who proceeds, over the course of more than 1,000 emails, to seduce him.
The film manages to be both voyeuristic and - for that reason - compelling, as we watch Nev take what he sees and hears on trust, believing everything Megan says. Before long, he is smitten with the sultry blonde whose texts and emails have led him completely to believe in her.
"She has a really nice voice, right?" he asks his brother, who is one of the film-makers. The audience member's role as voyeur is important to the success of the film, because we have no difficulty sensing that Nev is in for a nasty surprise. When cracks start to show in Megan's story, Nev sets out across country to find her, and at the end of a very long journey discovers something he could never have suspected.
Contrary to hints given by its trailer, Catfish is neither a horror film nor a thriller. Unlike the disappointing Blair Witch Project, it rings true as a documentary about human tragedy, although on a small scale. Yet I can't suppress misgivings about the exploitation of some of those who appear in it, for the irony is that Nev, who at the start of the film is the character whose emotions are held up for inspection, is a lure for those whose lives are disinterred and stripped down during its course. The problem is that it's hypocritical to complain about this after you've seen the film.
Twice while watching it, I wondered for a moment whether what I was seeing had been played up by its participants. To a European sensibility, Americans can appear unnervingly enthusiastic about shedding tears or otherwise emoting for the camera. And there are scenes in this documentary that are startling for their emotional candour. But the film never really strikes a false note. Everything that passes in front of us possesses the gravity of life as it is lived - and therein lies the film's success.
That said, it is not easy to watch because it is filmed on the fly with an awe-inspiring variety of digital video cameras, some of them the same size as a small, handheld still camera. The result is that the entire thing has the jerkiness of a home movie, and if like me you watch it in the third row from the front in a huge auditorium, you'll go home feeling thoroughly seasick.
Catfish has received a bewildering range of reviews in America because it isn't the sort of thing that usually turns up in the multiplexes, where it is currently playing. Some are irritated with it, others are unenthusiastic, while others have praised it to the skies. I think it answers the largely ignored hunger for films that confront what daily life is like for people other than highly paid movie actors, and in choosing to focus on internet dating (something in which an enormous number of people of all ages now participate), it has found a subject of contemporary interest. All the same, the story at its core is an old one, although told with energy and freshness of vision. My only real misgiving is that it might, perhaps, have been conveyed with a little more compassion.
Duncan Wu is professor of English at Georgetown University.