'Catfish' an unsettling documentary

Nev Schulman, a photographer in New York, in "Catfish," codirected by his brother, and raising all sorts of questions about social networking.
Nev Schulman, a photographer in New York, in "Catfish," codirected by his brother, and raising all sorts of questions about social networking.
Posted: September 24, 2010

Steven Rea is creeped out by Catfish, and he's telling his Facebook friends.

An unsettling documentary about Internet intimacy and how you can pose as somebody else - lots of somebody elses - in a social network world, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's tricky little number addresses one of the ironies of the Facebook Era: that sharing your life on a computer screen doesn't necessarily bring you closer to other people.

Yup, stop the presses: There's alienation and loneliness in the land, and announcing what you had for breakfast to your Facebook pals isn't necessarily going to make things better.

While David Fincher's The Social Network, opening next Friday, looks at the messy birth of Facebook, Joost and Schulman's Catfish examines the messy afterbirth: virtual communication as miscommunication, deception, and self-delusion.

However, it's hard not to shake the feeling that there's deception being perpetrated by the filmmakers, too; there are big chunks in Catfish that feel staged, or at the very least disingenuous. But here's the lowdown: Nev Schulman, Ariel's brother and a photographer in New York, has been "friended" by Abby Pierce, an 8-year-old from a tiny Michigan town. She's a painting prodigy (see Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That) and she starts sending Nev artwork inspired by his photos. Then Abby's mom, Angela, friends the 22-year-old New Yorker. And Megan, Abby's older half-sister, joins Nev's "Facebook family." She's a singer/songwriter. She lives on a horse farm. She's hot.

At a certain point in Catfish, after Nev reads aloud the sexting exchange he's had with Megan, he, his filmmaker brother, and Joost decide it's high time to go to Michigan and meet Abby, Angela, and especially Megan, in the flesh. What happens next isn't altogether surprising, but it sure is depressing.

Catfish, made on the cheap with digital video, cell-phone cams, and hidden mikes, raises all sorts of questions - about the imaginary realms that open when you click on your computer screen, about cyber-stalking, but also about journalistic ethics.

This isn't Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck putting one over on the moviegoing public (or saying they are), but my sense is that the line between fact and fiction, as in I'm Still Here, isn't as clearly described as it should be.

As for the title, Catfish, well, if you believe Angela's husband, Vince, is capable of the metaphor he offers up from his front porch near the film's end, then I know a couple of hundred people who would like to be your friend. And there's a banker in the Ivory Coast who has a seven-figure check he'd like to send you.

Filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost will be present for Q & A sessions after the 3:15, 5:30, 7:45, and 10 p.m. screenings Saturday at the Ritz East.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@ phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly. com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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