‘Catfish,’ a documentary about online relationships, is a gripping true mystery

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer [email protected]

4.5 out of 5 Stars
Rated PG-13.  90 mins. Now
playing at the Angelika Film
Center Mockingbird Station and AMC NorthPark Center.


If you’ve heard any spoilers for Catfish already, shame on the person who told you. This is a rare opportunity to be surprised in a movie theater in a time when studios are opting for marketing tactics that gets people into the theater without concern for truly entertaining them once they get there. To be sure, Piranha 3-D wasn’t a great movie, but did they have to show the final shocking scene in the trailer?

The last time an onscreen secret deserved to be kept by audiences and critics alike was probably The Crying Game. The mystery at the center of this film, thankfully, isn’t the entire thrill. Really, it’s the way filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost structure their documentary.

Capitalizing on the do-it-yourselfability of modern filmmaking — where anyone with access to digital HD cameras and editing software can be an auteur — they weave animated sequences from Google Earth, instant messages from Facebook and videos from YouTube with the same frantic browsing experience of anyone who’s ever attempted to multi-task online.

The method of storytelling, which would’ve been thoroughly confusing to just about anyone even as recently as three years ago, intuitively plays to the way our brains now function.

The story starts out innocently enough. Schulman’s adorably cute (and distractingly hairy) brother Nev has begun an online friendship with Abby, an eight-year-old girl who sent him a painting of one of his photos. Soon, he’s developed a friendship with the girl’s mom, and eventually, a crush on her 19-year-old half-sister, Megan. The family begins sending him frequent care packages filled with more and more paintings and intimate glimpses into their family life.

After exchanging hundreds of text messages and chatting endlessly online and over the phone, Nev begins to slowly uncover inconsistencies in Megan’s story. Blinded by the possibility of love and curiosity, he and the filmmakers head to rural Michigan to surprise her in person. At this point, the mystery begins — utterly compelling and nothing my sick imagination had predicted. The result is a story that’s at once heartwarming, frightening, unsettling and vivid.

The fact that the filmmakers stumbled onto this bigger narrative completely by accident has caused many critics to accuse them of faking the whole thing. But I tend to believe them.

Catfish ends up as one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in quite awhile. Just make sure to stay for the closing frames where even more shocking truths are revealed in simple white text on a black screen. Then head home and decide whether or not you should keep your Facebook account.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.