Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Catfish’ A Cautionary Tale for the Insincere and the Ingenuous

Courtesy Rogue

You’ve probably heard a thing or two about what has become known as “the other Facebook movie.” Let it be known that it is every bit as important to our generation as “The Social Network,” despite the fact that they tell two completely different stories about a website that has helped define our demographic more than just about anything.

This film describes itself as a documentary, but works best as a thriller, simply because the way it reveals the truth is not only completely suspenseful, but jarring to anyone who has ever used social networking. Also, “Catfish” contains so many secrets that one can’t reveal in a review without spoiling the film’s emotional impact that it’s next to impossible to write about the story it tells. One can only reveal the basic setup, and tell you to see this amazing film as soon as possible.

The film begins as a light and humorous documentary about a young New York dance photographer named Nev Schulman, a charismatic and friendly guy, made by his filmmaker brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost. One day, on his Facebook, Nev receives a gorgeous oil painting of one of his published photographs, made by an 8-year-old prodigy from Michigan named Abby.

Nev is understandably touched and he begins a casual online friendship with Abby and her proud mother Angela. He also begins corresponding with Abby’s beautiful 19-year-old half-sister Megan, a musician, dancer and horse trainer. Slowly but surely, friendship turns into flirtation, which turns into a long-distance relationship. Nev is smitten by her. This is all documented by the filmmakers, who inadvertently strike gold with what happens, all of which shocks and surprises not only their audience, but the filmmakers themselves.

All is well until they find out that the MP3s of Megan’s “original” songs are all taken from other peoples’ amateur YouTube performances. There turn out to be other false claims. While the three are in Vail, Colo., making a film for a dance festival, they decide to take a trip up to Michigan to surprise what they call the “Facebook family” and, of course, they bring along their cameras. There, they do indeed find the family, and they are welcomed as respectfully as can be expected given the circumstances, but what they find turns their film upside down.

Of course a film like this has garnered as much controversy as it has praise. Plenty of people argue that it’s not really a documentary, but an elaborate hoax. Others, who must believe that the film is completely factual, argue that its outcome is exploitative of the family involved, especially Angela, the mother. What Joost and the Schulmans end up with is an exciting cautionary tale about privacy in the age of the internet. Sure, the facts are as slippery as a catfish, and must be taken with a grain of salt. This does not lessen the film’s effect.

In addition, “Catfish” doesn’t come off as exploitative because the filmmakers treat the subjects with as much courtesy as possible. They gradually become aware that what they are documenting is incredibly important and will expose what must happen to countless Facebook users every day, so they don’t have a choice but to see the situation out to its finish, no matter the cost. The film’s conclusion, and the filmmakers’ treatment of it, is remarkably human, and the characters they uncover are complex and beautifully sobering. What appears to have begun as a light-hearted project about a 8-year-old prodigy becomes both an engrossing morality tale as well as a wake-up call.

If you have a Facebook, don’t miss Catfish, which is playing at Amherst Cinema. The minute you find out the meaning of the title might be one of the most moving things you’ll see in a cinema this year.

Austin Dale can be reached at [email protected].

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