Sundance 2010: The bait and switch of ‘Catfish’


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The longest lines on Thursday’s Friday’s first full day of screenings at Sundance may have been for the high-profile films playing in the dramatic competition -- ‘happythankyoumoreplease’ and ‘Hesher’ -- but a theater full of moviegoers experienced the heady rush of discovering emerging talent in an midmorning screening of the documentary ‘Catfish.’

Most people in the audience shaking snow off their shoes probably circled the screening on their program because of the film’s pedigree -- it was produced by Andrew Jarecki, who directed the quicksand of a documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ which premiered at Sundance in 2003. Those in attendance quickly found themselves enthralled by ‘Catfish’s’ veil-dance story -- at first a detective tale, then evolving into a revealing personal journey -- of friendship and courtship in the Facebook age.


The set-up is as simple as it is timely. Yaniv Schulman is a handsome and talented 24-year-old photographer, living the bohemian life in Manhattan. After one of his images is published by a New York newspaper, an 8-year-old art prodigy from Michigan named Abby Pierce contacts him via MySpace, asking whether she can paint his photograph. From there, the two embark on a digital relationship, and through the ever-widening concentric circles of social media, Yaniv becomes involved with Abby’s mother, Angela, and her comely 19-year-old sister, Megan, as well as their extended clan.

As it becomes quite clear early on in the film (shot by Yaniv’s older brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost), things aren’t exactly as they seem. Any further details would amount to plot spoilers, but it’s safe to say the filmmakers infuse the documentary with mystery and suspense as Yaniv begins to question who exactly is manipulating the keyboard as his online relationship with Megan blossoms and her statements begin to wobble under scrutiny.

But what makes this documentary, which is attracting some buyer interest and was greeted in its first screening by a rare standing ovation, so emotionally potent isn’t just its commentary on the complications of modern binary relationships; it’s the humanity that the filmmakers unearth when they travel to Abby’s home and meet the family face-to-face. Many novice documentarians might have turned off the red light as soon as different versions of Internet identities become fleshed out. But the filmmakers’ persistence and compassionate questioning ultimately reveal not only our collective capacity for self-deception, but also the notion that true interpersonal connection comes not from showing our strengths, but from exposing our weaknesses.

-- Tim Swanson