Arriving in a market practically gorged with tongue-in-cheek faux documentaries, it’s initially difficult to take “Catfish” at face value. The story begins innocuously enough; Yaniv “Nev” Schulman has just had his first picture published in the New York Times when a package arrives at his office containing a painted replica of the photo. The artist is a 12 year-old admirer, and her correspondence begets a peculiar Facebook friendship. As Nev becomes involved with her and her family, however, he begins to notice certain inconsistencies with the perfect lives they lead online.
Much of the build-up feels stagey, and surely something is amiss, because either filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are considerably more talented directors than they portray themselves as, or they are not being entirely forthcoming. The prevalence of the camera during seemingly random moments that become key scenes seems perhaps a bit too fortuitous, and the placement and framing of the shots themselves seem too precisely calculated to have been captured on the fly for this amateur guerrilla venture.
Yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest. “Catfish” is about calling our willingness to accept unsubstantiated information into question, and thus encourages a skepticism and natural inquisitiveness towards itself. The entire thing could be fabricated, and its creators have a built-in ace in the hole. Falsifying a non-fiction film about false identity could add a brilliant meta layer to the puzzle.
That being said, I don’t believe that Joost and Schulman invented the whole thing. Somebody get these guys a pen and paper if they did. Rather, I tend to identify with the prevailing online rumor that suggests the ending was shot first, with some or most of the first half consisting of retroactive reenactments. But though I question the authenticity of certain moments, whether or not they are genuine seems beside the point—“Catfish” is an effective film.
The foundation of that success lies in its solid technique. The gradual rationing of information and the introduction and unraveling of the central mystery is surprisingly well handled. The plot is obtuse and intense when it needs to be, and the suspense is so potent that some have even been let down that it never becomes an all-out thriller.
But suspense has the tendency to be undervalued in an of itself, and the suspense in “Catfish” is an exceptionally executed, integral part of the ride. The film, on the whole, works not only because of its moments of seizing, visceral tension, but because of the greater message it evokes. In hindsight, scenes like those exploited in the trailer featuring Nev and his buddies arriving at a quiet farm in the dead of night seem downright silly when compared to where they eventually end up.
“Catfish” has been getting a ton of very positive press recently, and it deserves much of the praise it’s received. But backlash follows hype like a shadow, and I have a feeling that those swayed into seeing the film who might not have otherwise will enter with unrealistic expectations. It is a fascinating, offbeat experiment, but it still appeals to niche interests. The extent to which we let ourselves believe that the internet is a direct extension of our preceptory senses can be dangerous—But I’ll say no more. I don’t want to spoil anything.