This review contains minor spoilers.
Graciously appearing from out of nowhere (Rogue Pictures announced its opening only this week and at one theater in Orlando: Regal Waterford Lakes) on the same weekend as The Social Network, a film I admired but found lacking insight into the way everyday people are changed by Facebook, the documentary Catfish has plunked itself down as the very thing I was looking for.Â
Catfish hums with immediacy. It's a documentary that's only being seen at all because of the events that take place within it. While that might seem like a no-brainer ' Who would watch a doc where nothing happens? ' its greatness comes not from its makers' exploration of a preexisting thesis, but from the way life throws overwhelming twists and turns their way as a reward for their curiosity.Â
Nev Schulman is a young, successful New York photographer with an enviable bachelor pad in the city that he shares with his tech-obsessed brother, Rel, who's one of those guys that's always filming everything for no apparent reason. When we enter their lives, we learn that Nev has been communicating via Facebook with an 8-year-old painting protÃ©gÃ©, Abby, who lives in Michigan. Abby fell in love with Nev's photos and began sending him gorgeous canvas renditions of them. She also has a 19-year-old sister, Megan, who is beautiful, artistic, talented and completely head over heels for Nev. Out of some off-putting combination of ego and manners, Nev gets sucked into the family's Facebook web of friends and family, and quickly becomes a topic of great interest to seemingly everyone in tiny Ishpeming, Mich. There's even some chatter between Nev and Megan about his taking her virginity when they finally meet.Â
Then one day, Nev does a cursory Google search and finds that things may not be all that they seem. It appears that Megan recorded songs off of YouTube and pawned them off to him as her own. She has no great explanation, and the Ishpeming house of cards starts to fall. Loaded with questions, Nev, Rel and a cameraman head to Michigan to confront these small-town Ambersons.Â
There is great discomfort in watching it unfold: For the documentary's sake, Nev's brother forces him to read aloud his and Megan's most recent sexting session while Nev hides under bed covers. (By this point, they're sure Megan's not who she seems.) When they arrive in town, there's a palpable sorrow to the proceedings; we don't want them to unravel the mystery, and they have their hesitations as well. When it comes undone, all that's there is sadness, yearning, genuine artistry and shattered dreams.Â
It's rare to see someone truly change onscreen, especially in the age of 'realityâ?� shows; that goes double in a movie season packed with cinematic pranksters like Banksy and Joaquin Phoenix. But I think what Nev goes through, the humanity that smashes him in his ever-smirking face, is real. It's beautiful and heartbreaking, both for him and the family of which he's become an important part.Â
I can't see the brothers Schulman continuing to make jaw-dropping documentaries ' this isn't the unveiling of a great new talent ' but what they found, almost by accident, is remarkable nonetheless, and proves to those who might roll their eyes at the idea that movies about Facebook, or even involving Facebook peripherally, could be profound. But I'll say it again: People store their lives and, often, their hearts on their Walls.Â