Dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
(2010, PG-13, 87 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Xander: This Malcolm guy. What’s his deal? Admit that it wigs you slightly.

Buffy: Slightly. I mean, just not knowing what he’s really like.

Xander: How about who he really is? Oh sure, he says he’s a high school student. I could say I was a high school student.

Buffy: You are.

Xander: Okay, but I could also say I was an elderly Dutch woman, get me? Who’s to say I’m not? If I’m in the elderly Dutch chat room …

Buffy: I get your point.

From left: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Yaniv Schulman

That’s an exchange from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that aired back in 1997, when Mark Zuckerberg was 12. Looking back at it fourteen years later, the episode is remarkably dated: teenagers discussing the internet, email, and social networking not as a matter of fact but as a mysterious new specter in their young lives, a wormhole to an unknown destination. In 2011 it’s still a wormhole, but now we’ve absorbed it as a part of our daily lives.

In the Buffy episode, the character they knew as Malcolm turned out to be an ancient corruptor demon named Molloch. Things turn out a little better for the subject of Catfish, Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, who nevertheless gives his heart trustingly to someone he’s never met and gets it back a little worse for wear. The Social Network was last year’s terrific film about the making of Facebook, but Catfish is about how that technology interacts with us in the world, how it filters, conceals, misleads, and in the case of these individuals, strangely, how it draws out deeper truths. This is a thoughtful and compelling film.

Nev is a New York City-based photographer. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Nev’s brother) turn the camera on him when he begins to receive unsolicited mail from an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby, a prodigious painter who creates artwork based on his photographs. Then Nev begins to communicate with Abby’s mother Angela, and through Angela he meets Megan, with whom he begins a long-distance relationship. He forms an intimate bond with Megan, but over eight months of correspondences the holes in her story become more apparent, and the filmmakers switch from the observers of a romance to the investigators of a fraud.

Friend Request

I won’t describe what comes next, but you should ignore the film’s advertising. Perhaps believing it had crossover potential, or unsure of how else to package it, Rogue Pictures – which has also produced horror films like The Strangers, My Soul to Take, and Seed of Chucky – falsely sold Catfish as some kind of docu-mystery-thriller in the Blair Witch vein, which seems bound to disappoint anyone looking for one and keep away those who might appreciate it on its own terms. Suggested in the trailer and commercials is a dead-of-night fright fest. What we get instead is gratifyingly humane. There comes a point when the urbanite filmmakers could easily become exploitive and condescending, but instead they choose sympathy, which in a way is the film’s most ironic twist: the alienation of the internet is subverted into a new, richer connection to the world. Nev emerges on the other side of the wormhole and finds no demons, just people.

Stylistically, the film makes clever use of new media. Scenes of travelling are shown through GPS units and Google Earth satellite imagery. New characters are introduced by hovering cursors over their tagged pictures online. The relationship between Nev and Megan is developed through GChat, status updates, text messages, Photoshop, and on one occasion through the actual postal service. In this way, the film reflects a world increasingly built on digital platforms and, even more than The Social Network, evokes the modern multimedia ethos.

Is it real? That question has plagued other documentaries in the last year, including I’m Still Here, the Joaquin Phoenix exposé revealed by director Casey Affleck to have been a ruse, and Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s rebel-art documentary whose veracity is still unclear. The question is raised for this film in part because of its subject matter (it’s all about how social media can fool you), but also, I think, because its promotion suggests vérité-style thrills (I first saw the trailer at a screening of The Last Exorcism). Certainly it would be easy to fake, provided you have very, very good actors in some of the pivotal roles. For the purpose of this review I’ll take their word for it because, as with Gift Shop, I don’t think it matters either way. They say truth is stranger than fiction. Social networking falls somewhere in-between.