Nev Schulman is a young photographer living in New York with two filmmakers; his brother Ariel and Henry Joost. When Abby Pierce, an 8 year old child prodigy painter living in Michigan, sends Nev a painting of one of his pictures, the two quickly strike up a pen pal friendship. That soon leads to Nev getting to know her family, ultimately entering into a Facebook relationship with her older half-sister, Abby. The relationship progresses to the point where Nev travels to Michigan to finally meet Megan, but the results of the trip are somewhat unexpected...
After The Social Network, a film recounting the creation of Facebook, we now have a documentary depicting its use and role in modern day life. A story of a relationship between two people who meet through a mutual friend on Facebook and gradually escalate their relationship by exchanging Facebook messages, songs, pictures, text messages and phone calls. But nothing in this world goes perfectly, and something seems off with this whole thing. What they discover is extremely intriguing and somewhat alarming.
This is a film of two halves. The first half of the film establishes the premise of the documentary; our protagonist Nev strikes up an online relationship with a young painter called Abby. Their pen pal relationship leads to Nev being integrated into Abby’s family through Facebook, speaking to Abby’s mother Angela about her talented daughter and then Abby’s older, highly attractive half-sister Megan. It’s about this time we enter Nev’s life through Ariel and Henry’s cameras and follow his online relationship with the Pierce family, especially Megan. Nev and Megan start flirting, which quickly turns serious and leads to Nev wanting to fly to Michigan to meet her. Everything progresses quite quickly and it’s played out light-heartedly, attempting to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. However, there are a few seeds of doubt planted which only seem to drive Nev into finding out what’ll happen if he goes to Michigan.
This leads to the second half of the film, where Nev and our two directors fly to Chicago and drive to Michigan to finally meet Megan, Abby, Angela and the Pierce family. I’ll say no more in fear of spoilers, but I will say this half of the film is definitely the better half. The second half turns the film from a documentary into a tale of mystery, deceit and intrigue. After a very exposition-like first 35 minutes, the film takes a sudden twist and becomes engrossing viewing. The final 40 minutes, in particular, are so intriguing and full of revelations that is certainly leads you to doubt the legitimacy of this documentary and makes you feel you’re watching a finely acted, astutely written drama.
Certainly, the performances we see on screen don’t feel staged, it looks and feels naturalistic. Unfortunately, what I feel has brought upon all the doubters this film has attracted is the way the fact that the cameras are rolling at just the right moments. Things just seem to happen, revelation is followed by revelation. If it’s drama, then it’s well written and it plays up to its climax quite nicely. If it’s reality, then it’s squirmingly good and a somewhat disturbing story about social networking. This is a tale of a Facebook-born relationship, something which is commonplace in 2010. It just so happens that this one was caught on film and turned into something which is truly a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream.
Overall, it’s not hard to see why this film has attracted the amount of buzz and internet hype it has; it’s a light-hearted whimsical documentary which turns into a complex, engrossing mystery. Catfish is a pretty good companion piece to The Social Network, allowing viewers to break down both the creation and use of Facebook and showing that there is a dark side to social networking. Indeed, if you’re going to take away anything from this film, it’ll be the question of how much we should be trusting of Facebook and other social networks. This film very neatly raises the question and emphatically answers it. You’ll be thinking about this one for a while, and it’ll definitely make you doubt all those internet ‘friends’ whom you’ve never actually met that like and comment on your status updates. After you’ve seen this, you’ll almost certainly have an answer to the question that Facebook poses on a daily basis: What’s on your mind?