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Movie review: ‘Catfish’ blurs line between truth, fiction

Fri., Oct. 22, 2010

Can you trust that anything you see in the new “documentary” “Catfish” is the truth?

The movie, which caused a considerable stir at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, follows a New York City photographer, Nev Schulman, who strikes up on online friendship with a child art prodigy, which in turn blossoms into an online romance with the girl’s older sister.

When questions are raised about the identity of these two people, Nev – along with his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, who are both credited as directors – decide to travel to the girls’ home in Michigan to investigate.

Yet much of their investigation seems staged, and the question of how much the filmmakers knew before they set off on their trek, and when they figured it all out, is cleverly eluded.

The result is less a traditional narrative than a fascinating modern artifact, a movie made by and for members of a generation who view their personal lives as just another entrepreneurial opportunity.

Good-looking and quietly confident, Nev is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind it. Like so many young men raised on reality television, Ariel and Henry know a juicy story when they see one – and, more to the point, they know how to edit that story for maximum impact.

By the time this trio makes it to Michigan, and meets the mother of the two girls, they’ve immersed us fully into an elaborate hall of mirrors.

Your response to “Catfish” will depend entirely on whether you find these three men charmingly naive or insufferably smug, innocent victims or wily perpetrators. I found myself coming down somewhere in the middle, partly enraged by the filmmakers’ manipulation of facts and lives, and yet nonetheless hanging on every strange twist in this saga.

The climactic sequence, in which Nev finally learns the identities of the two girls and their mother, is either a raw, unflinching portrait of the way social media and Internet have driven us all a little crazy, or the deftest hoax since “The Blair Witch Project.”

Either way, you can’t tear your eyes from the train wreck unfolding onscreen.

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