Catfish is an enthralling documentary about loneliness, deception and that place
where the two often meet: Facebook.
The film takes a lot of strange turns, so I’ll try to be as coy as possible. New York
documentary filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have chronicled the online
relationship between Schulman’s brother, Nev, and a family from Michigan who have expressed
interest in Nev’s photography. The family stays in contact over several months – mostly
through Facebook – until Nev catches them in a few white lies. Rather than call them on it,
he – and the cameras – head to Michigan unannounced to find out what is really going on.
The catch with Catfish is that it almost certainly involves deceit on the part of
the filmmakers. There is something off right from the start – why is Ariel bothering to
carefully document his brother’s Facebook activity? Other red flags emerge, until you begin
to wonder if the trio didn’t decide to make the film once they suspected something was
rotten in Michigan.
Yet no matter how they got there, what they find in Michigan feels undeniably real – and
utterly bewildering. I wouldn’t dare reveal who is behind the ruse, but I will say the
amount of intense effort and obsessive planning it requires is the work of a deeply
disturbed personality. (If it turns out the perpetrator is also in on the act – a la Joaquin
Phoenix in an I’m Still Here-style hoax – then he/she deserves this year’s Best
There is another surprise. The Schulmans and Joost have been described as snarky hipsters
who goaded their Michigan target into deeper deceit, but when the moment of confrontation
comes, it’s an oddly gentle one. Eventually a new, more authentic relationship is formed,
one that – according to the end credits – continues on Facebook. If that’s true, then
Catfish comes dizzyingly full circle – it goes from sociable to sociopathic and back again.