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Catfish’ Falls Flat as a Social Networking Film

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, October 28, 2010

Twenty minutes into the new viral-sensation documentary film “Catfish,” I had shivers running up and down my back as I sat on the edge of my seat. I was entranced by the film’s intriguing story and a shocking revelation I could feel coming. Twenty minutes after the movie ended, I felt a bottomless pit in my stomach — the kind you get after you see something very unsettling.

Only, “Catfish” wasn’t unsettling, per se, but rather frustrating in that it builds to a roaring climax that has such incredible promise, but then falls flat not because it’s a “bad” movie, but because it chooses to delve into the wrong themes.

Without giving away too much, “Catfish” is like a hall-of-mirrors film that answers what’s real and what’s fake while barely scratching the surface of what it all means. That may work for some films which beg for an inner deconstruction of the plot in order to figure out what’s really going on and what are the implications, but it lends to the seemingly unfinished, unsavory feel of the film.

If there has ever been a movie that could be spoiled with a plot summary it is “Catfish.” The film starts off when Nev Schulman, a photographer from New York, receives a series of paintings from Abby, an eight-year-old girl from Michigan. The two forge an online correspondence over Facebook, which prompts Nev’s brother Ariel and his best friend Henry, to make a documentary about the friendship. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of love and deception when Nev starts talking to Abby’s mother, Angela, and her older sister, Megan, whom Nev strikes a romantic connection with.

What starts off as an unassuming project that could have ended up anywhere between the lines of “My Kid Could Paint That” to just another recycled, sappy love story ends as anything but. “Catfish” is, after all, a story of love and deception in the internet age. It is inherently a product of its time, yet the film turns its back on the most intriguing route it could have taken: an exploration of how we desire that “connection” and how online deception fits into the equation. Instead, “Catfish” falls short of being the social critique it could and should have been, and coils up into a state of mediocrity.

Somewhere between the time when the audience is clinging to those sticky minutes before “the big reveal” and the time when it’s safe to say that the film fades into that aforementioned state of mediocrity, “Catfish” takes a wrong turn was made that could have been avoided. By the film’s end, when the “protagonist” and “antagonist” sit in a children’s room staring eye-to-eye for the last time as they face the reality of their respective realities, it’s near impossible to tell just who wins and who loses, and most of all, who’s who in this story. Who is the hero, and who is the villain, if there is one at all? And most importantly, just what does it all mean? 

Juxtaposing the pathetic, yet human image of Mark Zuckerberg sitting at his computer waiting for his ex-girlfriend to accept his friend request in “The Social Network” with the themes at the heart of “Catfish,” it becomes clear that social networking is about “connecting.” It’s about simply connecting and establishing a form of closeness and openness that we so rarely achieve, regardless of how many friends we have on Facebook.

The characters at the heart of the film, both coming from different worlds, desired the barest level of connection, and achieved so much more — before the truth set in and reality washed over them like a bucket of ice water. Somewhere along the line that was lost, and that’s where the film becomes too jumbled and gets lost in itself before the end credits roll and the opportunity is wasted.