Sundance 2010: ‘Catfish’ reels them in

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How big a Sundance phenomenon has ‘Catfish’ become? So big that a teenager who looked very much like Joshua Hutcherson, the co-star of the other Sundance phenomenon, ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ was getting in line with hoi polloi Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the Prospector Theater, hoping to land a rare rush ticket to the screening.

It’s easy to see why. As our colleague Tim Swanson described earlier in the festival, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s documentary is a powerful and startling work. Following the journey of a young New York photographer (Nev Schulman, the director’s brother), as he begins an online relationship with a Michigan family, it soon veers into strange and suspenseful territory as he discovers that the family is not what it appears to be.


The movie, which questions the nature of truth in an online world, doesn’t really take a position on Facebook and MySpace and ambient intimacy and all that, at least not beyond the implied observation that social media can complicate human interactions as much as it can facilitate them. (At the screening, Ariel Schulman said, ‘We’ve reached out to Facebook but they haven’t reached out to us. But YouTube’s into it.’ Whatever studio winds up with this film will have a field day marketing it via social media sites.)

In some ways, ‘Catfish’ is more of an amazing story than an amazing movie (The Big Picture’s Patrick Goldstein astutely notes that the film represents a breakthrough by showing how great documentaries can be made from the stuff of everyday experience). But the turns it takes and the questions it raises -- not to mention the emotional payoff it ultimately offers -- makes it so that you’re not really bothered by the lack of classic filmic virtue. It’s our own favorite movie of the festival so (and by) far, and by the time this thing wraps up, we suspect plenty of others will make the same declaration.

The post-screening Q&A did get a little squishy when one questioner accused the filmmakers of faking the entire movie. The directors seemed startled at first, then Ariel Schulman said, ‘So he [Nev] is the best actor? He’s the next Marlon Brando?’ His voice dripped sarcasm. ‘And we’re the best writers in Hollywood?’

It’s preposterous, based on everything one sees in the film, to believe anything here was staged or faked. But after watching a movie that so persuasively exposes how few things in the modern world are as they appear to be, it’s hard to blame someone for letting their paranoia and conspiracy theories get the better of them.
-- Steven Zeitchik