Catfish was one of the true darlings at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a documentary subject to a bit of a bidding war that now finds itself in the rare spotlight as a documentary receiving a national release courtesy of the folks at Universal and Rogue Pictures.
The documentary, which feels about as real as did Nanette Burstein's American Teen, centers around Nev Schulman, a young New York photographer who finds himself increasingly drawn into the world, via Facebook, of a seemingly talented 8-year-old from Michigan named Abby along with her seemingly cool parents and her seemingly even more cool 19-year-old sister Megan, with whom he begins a bit of a flirtation.
About an hour into the film's 86-minute run time, Nev becomes a bit skeptical regarding certain aspects of his newfound friend's story and decides to head out to Michigan to check it out with his brother and friend, both of whom serve as the film's co-directors.
A difficult film to market given that the film's climactic big reveal is the film's real selling point and the filmmakers are trying like the dickens to not let the big reveal hit the press, Catfish will either strike you as an insightful look at the impact of technology on relationships in this century or, as it did me, will strike you as a trumped up, broadly painted, frivolous, pointless and only occasionally interesting piece of faux documentary.
Easily compared to this year's vastly superior Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish spends far too much time building up to the big journey to Michigan and, for the most part, Nev and his friends are a self-absorbed, uninteresting and uninvolving group of young men. By the time the big reveal comes round, how many people are actually going to care?
As seems to frequently be the case for any self-driven doc, the material isn't nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. This includes the big "reveal," a reveal that may or may not be actually true but isn't particularly involving either way.
Catfish looks and feels like exploitation, a bit like watching Joaquin Phoenix's rapidly disintegrating soul and somehow having the balls to call it art. Here, however, we're talking about a family and the entire thing just feels a whole lot more uncomfortable.
The other problem with Catfish exists in its uneven tone, not too far removed from a film that is retro-fitted for 3D while in post-production. In this case, there are scenes in the film that feel as if they were created once Nev and his friends decided to make a film about all this, giving the film a feeling of being manipulated and forced at times. While there are moments in the film, especially in its final 30 minutes, when what unfolds is sort of like the train wreck you can't help but watch, the film's first hour feels like an exercise in cinematic narcissism by a group of young men determined to use their techno toys.
Catfish isn't a horrible film by any means, but neither is it a film that was worthy of all that praise at Sundance. While there are a few "Aha!" moments in Catfish, ultimately your enjoyment of the film will be determined by whether or not you're willing to take the bait.