First, I should tell you that I don't trust dudes who unironically wear red jockey shorts or have lower-back tattoos. I'm bringing this up because Nev Schulman is guilty of both of these no-nos.
For me, seeing Schulman's scrawny brief-clad, ink-covered behind - literally - was the most shocking part of "Catfish," a documentary that is supposed to surprise viewers with its twisty storyline. But much like the sight of Schulman in red tighty-whiteys with a tramp stamp, there are things in the movie that appear more suspect than others.
Schulman is a photographer who lives with filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel, Nev's brother. One day, Abby, an 8-year-old girl, contacts Schulman on Facebook. Schulman eventually mentors and strikes up a friendship with the young girl, who is something of an art prodigy in her small Michigan town. Soon, he becomes a friend to the whole family, getting friend requests from Abby's mom, Angela, and Abby's half-sister, Megan.
Nev is particularly drawn to Megan, a virginal 19-year-old with a flair for singing and songwriting. They start texting and chatting online with each other, calling each other "Babe" and other cute stuff like that.
One night, Schulman and the directors ask Megan to cover a song and play it online, which she does. When they find an "original" song of hers, they learn that the song has been around for quite a while, even appearing on the "One Tree Hill" soundtrack. They start snooping around and discover that these songs she allegedly recorded are tunes from other people she posted online. When they begin investigating the other bits and pieces of Megan and her family's life, they come to one conclusion: Someone hasn't been telling the truth. (BTW, they make this discovery while staying in Vail, Colo. How's that for shameless, obvious symbolism?)
A story unravels
Schulman and the directors embark on a trip to Michigan to get some answers. What they finally discover I'm not supposed to tell you about because the entire movie hinges on this Big Reveal. Because of this, the movie has been marketed as some sort of suspenseful, real-life thriller. But I'm here to tell you, that's so not the case, and it's kind of infuriating that the movie has been trumpeted this way.
What does happen when the Big Reveal shows up is that the movie actually becomes, well, interesting. Schulman and the directors are hit with something - or, should I say, someone - they didn't have when the movie was all about them: a sense of honest humanity. Once that has been established, the trio is forced to stop becoming smug hipster doofuses, annoyingly capturing everything that happens via flip-cams and other video equipment, and to stop snarkily wondering what kind of sick freak would do something like this. They must acknowledge that, for a lot of people, pretending to be someone else online is all they've got.
I'm trying to figure out the point of "Catfish," a movie whose biggest piece of advice appears to be: always Google those who try to friend you on Facebook. (Nev never does this, which is another strike against the man.) Another documentary whose authenticity comes into question before the first 15 minutes are up, "Catfish" seems less concerned with what makes people lie on the Web, and more concerned with calling out those who do, especially those who make you think you've been talking to a hot, young chick for several months.
Near the end, Schulman and the guys start focusing on the latter more than the former. But a smarter, less self-centered film would have dealt completely with how social networks have basically given people carte blanche to pretend to be something they're not, ultimately masking the lonely, sad and shameful existences they try so desperately to cover up.
Unfortunately, "Catfish" is a so-called mystery that uncovers only what we knew all along: People have a hard time being themselves.
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