Amir Bar-Lev's "My Kid Could Paint That" turns out to be several things by the time the end credits roll: a witty, evocative meditation on modern art, a steady-handed look at media manipulation, even a self-critical take on what is considered essential in nonfiction filmmaking.
But more important, it shows what unfolds when ambition and opportunism nearly destroy a family and threaten to take a young girl's innocence.
That's what happens with the Olmsteads, the Binghamton, N.Y., clan this documentary follows. It turns out the couldn't-be-cuter 4-year-old daughter, Marla, is something of an art prodigy, painting breathtaking, abstract tableaus that could rival Jackson Pollock.
Needless to say, this makes Marla the toast of the international art world: Her work gets hung in galleries, people pay inordinate amounts of cash for her paintings, articles and news stories are done about her, even art scholars, critics and admirers begin debating not only her artistic merit, but the merits of modern art in general. I mean, is it really art if a 4-year-old does it?
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Of course, with all this newfound fame and fortune comes the inevitable backlash. Charlie Rose does a "60 Minutes II" expose where he tries to debunk young Marla's capabilities, mostly by implying that her old man either coaches her or just does the paintings himself.
With Marla's artistic credibility evaporating, the rest of the movie has the Olmsteads doing their best to clear their name, mostly by using Bar-Lev's camera to capture Marla in her creative element.
(Watching these scenes reminded me of that Warner Bros. cartoon of the bum who would try to get famous with a singing-and-dancing frog, but the frog wouldn't sing and dance when anyone else was there to see it.)
Eventually, it gets to the point that Bar-Lev quietly divulges that he is also becoming skeptical of the Olmsteads' claim that their kid did paint that.
Smart, engrossing, shocking and a little sad, "Kid" delves into so many things in such a short time, you may want to take another viewing just to let it all marinate in your head. But even if you do get it all the first time, you still may check it out again just to get wrapped up in the story of this family.
Sure, Bar-Lev opens up the debate of whether these paintings are truly the work of a wide-eyed child or her amateur-painter dad. (With his fidgety demeanor and innate desire to promote Marla as the promising, brilliant artist he never became, he rarely presents a good case for himself onscreen.)
But in the end, the only thing you'll truly believe is that Marla is a kid who has yet to be tarnished by the cynicism, frustration and doubt her parents have to deal with. She seems virtually oblivious to her own success, running around, playing with her kid brother as the grown-ups map out her next move.
The final shot of the movie has her flashing a gleefully optimistic look that shows she's still a kid.
"My Kid Could Paint That" gives us a lot of questions to ponder, but it thankfully gives us one definite declaration: The kid is all right.