The relationship between a New York photographer and an 8 year old Michigan girl and her family, begun on Facebook, takes a startling turn in Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's intriguing documentary Catfish. That the film is the subject of a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival is not surprising. This is a film of warmth, humor, suspense and surprising grace, a crowd-pleaser for fans of personal docs, as well as anyone fascinated by the social and psychological ramifications of our increasingly virtual world, ensuring healthy box office numbers.
What makes Catfish even possible is that 24 year old Nev Schulman shares an office with his documentary making older brother Ariel and Ariel's partner Henry. So when little Abby Pierce contacts Nev on Facebook to ask permission to paint one of his photos and then sends him the accomplished finished product, the filmmakers are on hand to recognize a developing story. Abby, it seems, is a thriving artist in her community, her work eagerly sought by both collectors and local institutions. She; her mother, Angela; and 19 year old half-sister Megan (herself an artist and musician) quickly develop a Facebook and phone relationship with Nev, the story taking a new turn when he and Megan fall in love, albeit virtually.
That alone might have made for an engaging, if slight, movie. But then something happens that Nev and the filmmakers (who are themselves characters in the film) could not anticipate. How Nev approaches the situation with Abby and her family adds weight and resonance to a film that reveals the loneliness, isolation and even desperation that can lurk behind connections forged between strangers online.
Catfish is ultimately a poignant story but it is never maudlin, and for much of its 94 minute running time it is very funny. Nev is an engaging presence, blessed with a sunny disposition and an infectious sense of humor, and he is well-complemented by his sidekicks Ariel and Henry. What begins as a kind of conceit, following Nev's phone and Facebook communications with Abby and her circle, eventually transforms into a kind of mystery, but there is no mystery to the documentary's appeal as it traverses the virtual and real worlds to get to the heart of an enigma.
Director: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Producers: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: TBD