Ever since the World Wide Web became a tool of everyday life, people have used it to deceive. Some use it to take suckers for millions (though I still have faith that Nigeria's Prince Abassi will make good on his promises), or to lure victims into sexual assault. Then there are those who deceive to escape everyday life, to create digital selves that have accomplished failed dreams. With the advent of social-networking sites, the Internet has allowed people a seemingly harmless way to create idealized avatars.
Such is the central concern of Catfish. The documentary follows New York photographer Nev Schulman, who receives an email from 8-year-old Michigan wunderkind painter Abby, saying she has replicated one of Schulman's photos. Nev and Abby become pen pals, and Abby's mother, Angela, sends the photographer boxes of paintings. Nev's brother, Rel, and friend Henry Joost—both filmmakers—see potential in the story and begin to roll camera. Soon, Nev is regularly calling the family, and forges a cyber-romance with Abby's impossibly hot half sister. But when Nev notices glaring deceptions in the correspondence, the friends get all Nancy Drew and head into the wilderness of upper Michigan to track down the "Facebook family."
Catfish is billed as a "reality thriller," but despite being somewhat psychologically unsettling, there are no thrills. There is, however, the sneaking suspicion that the group is tweaking its cinéma vérité approach into something more exploitive. When Nev says he doesn't want to be on camera anymore, his brother asserts, "I am directing you in a film." In fact, much of Catfish feels carefully directed, as if the guys are playing dumb to make a larger argument about the casualties of identity deception.
Yet for all its coercion—honestly, it's impossible to blame filmmakers for using manipulation to uncover manipulation—Catfish is a sympathetic portrait of the lengths people will go to escape reality and its tribulations. We all do it. We post 4-year-old photos of ourselves on Facebook so our friends don't see our beer guts. We embellish small details of our careers. And, in extreme cases, we create networks of imagined friends and events to feel alive again. The film, though flawed, offers a compelling sociological study of the tactics people employ to be who they always wanted to be, if only on a computer screen. PG-13.
opens Friday at Lloyd Center.