Catfish (documentary)

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Considering that “Catfish” is a documentary about how you can use the Internet to lie about who you are, I suppose it’s only fitting that the film’s trailer grossly misrepresents what kind of movie it is. It’s not a thriller. It isn’t scary. It has mystery and intrigue, but not the kind that terrifies you. Your best bet is to not watch the trailer at all until after you’ve seen the movie, and then go back and watch it for laughs.

In the meantime, see “Catfish.” You’re unlikely to see a more riveting and surprising true-life tale anytime soon. The central figures in it embark on some Internet-assisted sleuthing, and much of the viewer’s pleasure is in figuring things out along with them. Therefore, it’s best if you don’t know too much about the movie going in. I’ll give you just this:

Nev Schulman is a 24-year-old photographer in New York who becomes Facebook friends with an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby who likes his work. Abby, an artist herself, flatters Nev by doing paintings of some of his photos. Through Facebook, Nev also becomes “friends” — I think “The Social Network” has reminded us to put that word in quotation marks when Facebook is concerned — with Abby’s mother, Angela, and her older half-sister, Megan. Nev’s brother, Ariel, and their friend Henry Joost are filmmakers who think the story of Abby the 8-year-old artist might be good documentary fodder, so they start chronicling Nev’s online interactions with her. Meanwhile, Nev forges a phone and e-mail relationship with Megan, the older sister. Eventually it is time for everyone to meet in person.

I’m not the first one to point out that “The Social Network” and “Catfish” would make an excellent double feature. The first is a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook; the second is a cautionary tale about the world Facebook has helped to create. The Internet makes it easy to spread lies — but the Internet also makes it easy to debunk them. Phonies and plagiarists think the vastness of the Internet will keep them from being discovered. They forget that the Internet isn’t just vast — it’s also well indexed and highly searchable.

The story that unfolds in “Catfish” is sadly resonant, a reminder that being “connected” 24/7 doesn’t necessarily prevent loneliness, and that it may in fact increase it. My only qualms have to do with Nev and the filmmakers, whose attitude toward their subjects reeks of smugness and condescension. There’s the uneasy feeling that they’re mocking the rubes more derisively than the rubes deserve to be mocked. Basically, I don’t like them. They got tricked, sure, but they seem like the kind of people who need a little deflating now and then.

Note: Some have found the events of “Catfish” to be too astonishing to be true and have concluded that the whole thing is a hoax, performed by actors. But I don’t see how you can watch the footage of the Michigan people and think it’s fake. It’s too natural and heartfelt. If it’s acting, it’s the best acting of the year, performed by completely unknown and non-professional actors. What I do think is possible, though, is that Nev and his collaborators figured things out sooner than they let on in the film and continued to play along in order to get additional juicy footage — in other words, that they solved the mystery earlier than the film suggests. If that’s the case, the movie is only slightly less effective as a documentary and still entirely functional as a story.

B+ (1 hr., 34 min.; PG-13, a scene with some moderate sexual dialogue.)

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