Love in the Time of Ethernet

A young man meets an alluring woman online, or does he? A review of the documentary Catfish, with optional spoilers.

Nev Schulman in Catfish.

A week after seeing Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, I was wary about Catfish (Rogue Pictures), another documentary in which young men capture the unfolding of dubiously real-life events. Enough already with privileged young white dudes congratulating themselves on their ability to prank an audience. But having seen Catfish, I tend to believe the filmmaker’s protestations (voiced at a contentious panel after the film’s premiere at Sundance) that this movie is on the level. That is to say, I believe the encounter that the film documents really happened, though the filmmakers may have elided or compressed some of the events leading up to it. But of all the twists in Catfish—a movie so twist-dependent that I plan to review it in an unusual format, with optional mouse-overs that reveal spoilers of graduated severity—the most surprising of all is what an honest and thoughtful film it turns out, against all odds, to be.

At the start, I wasn’t certain how much I was going to enjoy the company of this movie’s creators and protagonists, twentysomething brothers Yaniv (“Nev”) and Ariel (“Rel”) Shulman and Ariel’s filmmaking partner, Henry Joost. They’re nice enough guys—earnest, intelligent, curious—but young, with that mania for documenting each moment of their lives proper to the YouTube generation, and I found myself fearing that their naïve, puppylike enthusiasm was going to wear thin. After all, how much narrative weight can the social-networking woes of three nice middle-class boys really acquire? Once again, the movie has surprises in store.

The story begins when Nev, a photographer based in New York, strikes up a Facebook correspondence with an 8-year-old girl in Michigan who sends him a painting based on one of his photos. Curious about this precocious girl and her family, Nev “friends” Abby, acting as a kind of artistic mentor and encouraging her to make more work. In the process, he also becomes Facebook friends with Abby’s mother, Angela, and her 19-year-old half-sister, Megan, a dancer, singer and aspiring model.

Eight months and many Facebook postings, phone conversations, and Gchats later, Nev has become deeply embroiled with this creative family and their network of online friends, and he and Megan are beginning to fall for each other with the hothouse intensity only social media can enable. On a trip to Vail to film a dance festival, Nev, Rel and Henry make a troubling discovery about Megan. Cue the first click-through spoiler, which I would rate as a mild one, far from a movie-ruiner. Put your mouse here Catfish’s authenticity have pointed out that this discovery, which takes place in one seemingly real-time session as the boys gather around the computer screen, seems unnaturally sudden: Wouldn’t there be more of a gradual process by which the fact of Megan’s plagiarism came to light? While I agree that the directors may have engaged in some instant re-enactment to get this stuff on film—“Wait, my camera wasn’t on, can I say that again?”—the revelation that Nev’s too-good-to-be-true-girl really is too good to be true feels authentic to me.
“>  if you want to hear what the boys learn about Megan in Vail.

Armed with this new knowledge, or rather, this destabilization of their previous knowledge, Nev, Rel, and Henry set out on a road trip to Ishpeming, the small Michigan town where the family lives. (Coincidentally, it’s a town that’s been featured in the movies before; Ishpeming was the location for the Otto Preminger courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder.) There they discover a family configuration that’s radically different from the one represented on Facebook. Place your mouse here Catfish comes to justifying its misleading marketing as a “reality thriller.”
to read about who the filmmakers meet in Ishpeming; I’d classify this as a level-2 spoiler.

It’s when the boys get to Michigan that the movie goes from being a clumsily constructed video diary to a fascinating exploration of the deceptions—of self and others—made possible by the Internet. As they untangle the Facebook world from the real one, their quest to expose the truth about Megan and her family instead forces them to expose uncomfortable truths about themselves. Faced with the reality of driving in the dark down a stranger’s driveway, they panic and debate about whether to go forward or turn back. In their Michigan hotel room, Nev nervously reads aloud from an intimate text-message exchange with Megan, hiding beneath the covers when the naughty banter gets too embarrassing, but still somehow compelled to keep going.