Tuesday, 28 December 2010

'Catfish' review:

Chances are if you asked somebody if they'd seen "the film about Facebook" they'd probably think you were referring to David Fincher's 'The Social Network', a film about the site's founder Mark Zuckerberg and the litigation surrounding the origins of his now omnipresent creation. Yet for Fincher's thriller that is perhaps a misleading moniker, with the film actually more of a Shakespearean tragedy about power and betrayal. Really the film about Facebook itself is the documentary 'Catfish', directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.

'Catfish' follows photographer and brother of one of the film's co-directors, Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, as he receives a painting of one of his photographs done by a talented eight year-old girl named Abby. Nev befriends Abby's mother Angela on Facebook and soon "friends" the entire family on the social networking site. He is particularly taken with Abby's older sister Megan, a model, dancer, photographer and musician, and begins an intimate long-distance relationship with her. However, when Megan sends Nev some of her music he becomes suspicious of the whole family after finding that the clips had been taken off YouTube. Then the documentary turns from taking an innocent look at Nev's relationship with this multi-talented family to trying to uncover the truth behind who these people are.

The reason I suggest 'Catfish' is about Facebook (at least in part) is that, as immediately evident from the Universal logo at the start redone in the style of Google Earth, the film is overtly interested in the mechanics of how we interact online and why. It looks at social isolation and depression as one of the causes of using the web as a tool for escapist fantasy. It looks at the pitfalls of considering the internet as a place to meet people and make real, lasting connections. Also, it showcases the relative ease and sophistication with which people can now fashion convincing, fully realised fiction about themselves - something which 'Catfish' manages to take to its creepy (though not unexpected) conclusion.

The film is not only actually about the phenomenon of social networking and online dating, but it is also interestingly told using the websites themselves. We witness Facebook correspondence, are introduced to people via their "tagged" Facebook photos, whilst Google Earth and Street View are used extensively to establish locations. As the investigation into the truth behind Megan and her family gathers steam, we watch the filmmakers using search engines to research the family, at one point surfing real estate websites in the family's area to verify elements of their story. As much as this is Nev's story, it is also the story of what the internet has become in our lifetime: with the original novelty value of online shopping and news now just a matter-of-fact part of our existence (do-able even on most mobile phones) the internet is morphing into something more voyeuristic and even Orwellian.

Part of the joy of 'Catfish' is the uncertainty surrounding the "truth", so I won't write too much more about it here. Except to say that it is a highly compelling, dramatic and at times sinister film with as many laughs as awkward moments. Some have questioned its authenticity as a documentary, though I was pretty convinced by it. But even if it emerges that it was faked to some degree, I think there is still truth in it as a story that is probably playing out around the world (even if not to this extreme). In the end the film felt a bit like a Louis Theroux film about strange people. Though whereas Theroux is a little insincere and smirky with his subjects, the filmmakers here are actually refreshingly sensitive to the situation as the quest comes to a head. Whatever confrontations occur in the end are reasonable and handled sympathetically. This is where the film is at its best, as it packs a surprisingly emotional punch and tells an ultimately quite tragic story when it could have simply mined the situation for laughs and freakdom.

I never thought 'The Social Network' was the "film about Facebook" its detractors (or quite often those who didn't take time to watch it) tried to paint it as. But now that a film about Facebook is here, and is also very good, that line of argument seems all the more redundant.

'Catfish' has been rated '12A' by the BBFC and can be found playing in select cinemas across the UK. The film is also due out on DVD from January 10th.


  1. Nice review. I enjoyed Catfish and thought that it was nicely handled. Even if some aspects of the story have been staged or managed, it is still able to deliver an intruiging and moving tale. Congrats on a great blog too.

  2. Only just read this, so sorry for the late reply. Thanks very much for your nice comment!