‘Catfish’ Will Divide and Captivate

Posted on October 7, 2010 by


“Catfish” is the kind of movie that requires its reviewer, in full disclosure, to share his views on social networking.   So here it goes: I am not, nor have I ever been, an avid Facebook user.  Even “The Social Network” itself can seem a bit more accessible to me than some of the content of “Catfish”; the former film describes the history of the site while the latter gets a bit deeper into the psyche of the site’s users.

And “Catfish” proves that even Facebook’s more rational users can feel like part of the freak show to us uninitiated few.

The film itself is depicted as an accident.  Yaniv Schulman is a New York City photographer whose poetic images of ballerinas inspire eight-year-old Abby of Michigan to duplicate his visions in her paintings.  They connect on Facebook, and as Abby’s art grows in popularity so too does this unlikely friendship.  Soon Yaniv is a long-distance family member; he speaks regularly with Abby’s mother on the phone and, over the course of eight months, begins to develop a strong attraction for Abby’s older sister—even though they have never met.

But both Yaniv’s brother and his roommate are filmmakers who, out of mere fascination, begin to record Yaniv’s relationship with Abby and her family.  This is how the documentary can find its way to a theater near you.

Because of its genesis, “Catfish” feels like an uncomfortable, extended sequence from America’s Funniest Videos.  Believe it or not, that’s a compliment.  This film is a study of human nature, and it has the benefit of relaying a sequence of events that probably won’t happen to any of us but could happen to all dabble in social networking.  Yaniv and his two roommates eventually take their cameras and microphones to Michigan, and what they find there is not for me to tell.

What is disheartening about the nature of this film is how it will find a reception in the public.  People who share my opinions on Facebook will view the events that transpire as a cautionary tale against relying too substantially on technology as a social intermediary.  Facebook-philes will find “Catfish” to merely be an extreme circumstance, and they will approach it with the same gossipy fascination that inspires people to dawdle at the water-cooler.  What this segment of viewers will ignore is that Yaniv was a normal, nice, attractive young man, and yet the events of the film still happened to him.  Even the title itself, when explained in the final scenes of the movie, should engender a sense of caution  in Facebook users.

As a documentary, the film mostly succeeds.  Because of the nature of the movie, you may notice that characters sometimes seem unrealized, relationships undeveloped, and pacing halted because so many scenes show Facebook chats or one side of a stilted phone conversation.  But this is easily overlooked because of the “accidental” nature of this film’s existence: Could it be any better than it is when production began with no foresight of how bizarrely it would end?  When the film succeeds, it does so because Yaniv is so loveable; when it fails, it does so because it could not have existed in any other fashion.

What becomes the film’s ultimate attraction is the tantalizing way that we could all easily fall into the trap that Yaniv does or the routine that Abby’s mother does.  This is a freak show where we could all unwittingly become attractions.

Posted in: Zachary Houp