You are here: ‘Catfish’ and ‘Social Network’

Posted by · 12:42 pm · September 16th, 2010

I was instructed very early on by studio friends who saw “Catfish” during Sundance, when it was still looking for a buyer, not to read anything about it.  I have, as a result, instinctively dodged every bite and nugget about the film over the last few months, so much so that you all probably knew more about the film than I did when I walked into the Arclight for last night’s final press screening (I’m also good at procrastinating).  And after all, it’s been a sponsored Twitter trending topic for a few days now.

What I saw was an absolutely brilliant piece of filmmaking that is staggering when considered in the year of “The Social Network.” It’s a study of the here and now with just as much focus and an even greater emotional context (if you’re looking for it).  And whether it sought to be or not, the film is just as defining of where we are as a society as David Fincher’s effort.  Releasing it two weeks before “The Social Network” is also brilliant marketing strategy.

After the jump, I am going to talk about “Catfish” in extensive detail.  There will most certainly be SPOILERS, and I urge you (unless you couldn’t care less, of course) not to click through until you’ve had a chance to see the film.  (The poster even implores, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.”)  That’s about as clear as I can be in the way of a warning.  I’d also stay out of the comments section if you want to steer clear of spoilage.  So, if you’d like to proceed…

…still interested?


…last chance…

Okay, so “Catfish” is a documentary that tells the story of an eight-month, developing relationship between Nev Schulman (a New York photographer) and a Michigan family.  Abby, the youngest daughter of the family, is apparently a talented painter who sent Nev a piece built around one of his photographs.  Later, Nev becomes cyber-romantically involved with the oldest daughter, Megan.  And the entire relationship maintains that virtual connectivity because all communication is through telephone, letters, packages and, yes, Facebook.

Nev’s roommates, a pair of filmmakers, decide to document his developing relationship.  And soon enough, things start to get fishy (pardon the pun).  Megan, Abby and their mother, Angela, aren’t as they appear to be.  First it’s the consistent difficulty in meeting up with the family.  Then it’s an audio recording of a song Megan sang for Nev that turns out to be a YouTube cover.  More and more, simple web investigation uncovers a massive lie.  As the layers peel back, the levels of deception are increasingly bizarre.  And so the filmmakers take a more confrontational approach, driving out to the family’s Michigan home to see what’s what.

What they’re met with is Angela, a middle-aged housewife with an artistic gift, but her family life is a chamber.  She has a daughter with her husband and also cares for his two handicapped sons from a previous marriage.  She has no outlet for her work and has, amazingly, crafted a facade that goes very deep.  Beyond Megan and Abby is a cast of characters — friends, cousins, etc. — Angela has manifested on Facebook to live out a virtual existence, obviously to escape her actual one.  And the connection she generated with Nev was too meaningful to relinquish.

The instant reaction to this kind of thing is, “My God, what a psycho.”  But I was struck by how emotional the story really is.  I couldn’t help but feel deeply for someone who (harmlessly, mind you) creates a fake life and lives vicariously through the information and experiences she can be a part of through the internet.

Now, I imagine you know all of that since most will wait to read this until they see the film.  But another thing that hit me was how unbelievably poignant the film is in tandem with “The Social Network.” It’s no big discovery, obviously.  The parallels are obvious.  And if there isn’t a piece in the works at a major outlet built around this concept, I’d be shocked.  But these two films, together, perfectly illustrate where we are.  Fincher’s film tells the story of a college kid desperate to connect and to belong.  Underneath everything, that’s really what it’s about.  And  “Catfish” is very much about the same thing.

In this society of virtual connectivity, the tools to manipulate and deceive are as refined as ever.  A Facebook status update or a simple Tweet is as calculated as anything else one would put out into the public.  We’re never really putting who we are out there, only the best possible “who we are” for the virtual circumstance.  The level of control is absolute, and “Catfish” tells a story of extremes in that regard.  The question it raises, in some way, is how much are these tools really deteriorating our sense of identity?  In the midst of a Rosebud moment of sorts, the question “The Social Network” seems to ask with its final frame is, are we really just putting up walls with these new tools rather than bringing a community together in a Thomas Friedman “the world is flat” kind of way?

But they’re really both the same crucial question.

Immediately at Sundance suspicions started to arise as to whether “Catfish” is authentic or not.  And that’s understandable.  After all, the camera seems to be right where it needs to be throughout, and the narrative is very refined.  Interviews with the filmmakers reveal, I don’t know, a sort of awkwardness when the question comes up.  Not to mention, an anecdote at the end of the film (which yields the title) seems a bit too perfect.  I received an email from a screenwriter friend yesterday who maintains that, if real, then it is narcissistic and exploitative (despite the cooperation of all involved, as stated explicitly on a closing card).  If it is staged, the screenwriter said, then it is brilliant satire with amazing performances.

Part of me really wants the film to be staged, because that extra layer of thematic gullibility would be the icing on the cake.  But I happen to think it’s real (the filmmakers have said they would present all of their footage to prove as much if it came to it).  It at no point feels put on, as in, from a performance standpoint.  Either way, it is no less amazing.  If staged, it is indeed brilliant satire.  If real, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in some time.

But it all comes back to that crucial question, and these two films pose it perfectly.

“Catfish” opens in limited release tomorrow.  If you read through this as someone who hasn’t seen it yet, then I urge you to check it out.

(I didn’t mean to write over 1,000 words, but there you go.)

[Photo: Rogue Pictures]

→ 28 Comments Tags: , | Filed in: Reviews

28 responses so far

  • 1 9-16-2010 at 12:49 pm

    Will said...

    Gah! Not gonna read! Come out already, Catfish!

  • 2 9-16-2010 at 1:02 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I didn’t read anything about it and I pretty much knew what was going to happen. I did not like the film. To me this film has no replay value.


    I am 99% sure it is staged. All those people they mention, none of them are actually on Facebook. Yes I looked. Nev has a fan page that he just recently created to coincide with promotion for the film but not a facebook profile. There is also no “Megan Faccio” on FB either.

    Also like you said the camera is always in the right spot. Although if it is fake what is the deal with the retarded children? That is a little messed up if that was scripted.

    Finally being fake, that woman gives an excellent performance.

  • 3 9-16-2010 at 1:02 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Oh and if anyone has a problem with the word fake please replace it with staged or scripted. Thank you.

  • 4 9-16-2010 at 1:06 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Matt: Did you miss the card that noted all of those pages were pulled down by Angela?

    In any case, I think it’s possible the guys knew what they were getting into and that the whole “discovery” angle throughout the road trip is staged, but I don’t think it’s all a put on.

  • 5 9-16-2010 at 1:08 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Also, I disagree that it has no replay value. I think there is plenty to chew on thematically. But I also don’t think that a movie with a “twist” like this is inherently hurt because you can’t innocently discover it once again. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have watched The Usual Suspects a million times by now.

  • 6 9-16-2010 at 1:08 pm

    tintin(uruguay) said...

    Wowwww! Great trailer!

  • 7 9-16-2010 at 1:09 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Oh, and it goes without saying, the comments section will likely be packed with spoilers.

  • 8 9-16-2010 at 1:12 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I guess I forgot that card but it still does not explain why Nev does not have a profile?

    Or rather that girl they show at the end where they explain that is where the woman got the photos of Megan from. She was apparently a real person. I looked for her too and did not find her.

    I really wonder if the way it all began with that woman painting his photo is even authentic.l

  • 9 9-16-2010 at 1:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Well, like I said, if it’s fake, it’s even more brilliant, IMO. I can only say what I felt based on reacting to the images.

    And I know Rogue will be submitting it as a documentary for awards purposes.

  • 10 9-16-2010 at 1:17 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I am definitely not saying a movie with a twist can’t be seen multiple times. God knows how many times I’ve seen Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Sixth Sense myself. I don’t even consider Catfish as having a twist. You know about 20 minutes into it when they are playing those songs from youtube that things are not as they appear. After that there are no real surprises.

    This particular film is one where once I have been through that journey I have no interest in going on it again. To each his own I guess.

    Finally I agree with you on the catfish story at the end. Seems totally convenient and forced.

  • 11 9-16-2010 at 1:25 pm

    Loyal said...

    Kris, did you happen to see the documentary We Live in Public last year?

    I interviewed Ondi Timoner for a piece, it really is a fantastic film, a perfect marriage of The Social Network and Catfish. The awkward internet tech whiz kid, privacy issues, greed, collapse of reality, fraud, extreme loneliness. I highly recommend the film.

  • 12 9-16-2010 at 1:27 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    You know, I never did. And I fully had every intention to. I need to see it.

  • 13 9-16-2010 at 1:41 pm

    cineJAB said...

    It seems like they’re advertising it as a horro film…also this sounds like it could just as easily be an episode of True Life.

  • 14 9-16-2010 at 1:41 pm

    cineJAB said...


  • 15 9-16-2010 at 1:42 pm

    Loyal said...

    I know she has that global warming doc this year, I’ve heard good things about it.

    Had she only waited a year with We Live In Public, it would have been another great companion piece to The Social Network.

    Definitely check it out when you get the chance. The Thin Red Line Criterion Blu-Ray then We Live in Public.

  • 16 9-16-2010 at 1:43 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    cineJAB you are pretty much right on the money with how I feel. The way they advertised it made me expect something else.

    And knowing that it is staged I can’t help but think they could have done more.

  • 17 9-16-2010 at 1:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “knowing that it is staged”


  • 18 9-17-2010 at 7:34 pm

    bryan said...

    i saw it and thought it was an interesting story done in an interesting way. i do think it’s strange that no one is really talking about Angela from a mental health perspective. This is clearly a sick woman. It is oversimplifying it to just state, “Angela has manifested on Facebook to live out a virtual existence, obviously to escape her actual one”. she also lies in person numerous times about things such as having cancer as well as where her daughter is. I think there are a lot of fascinating issues with Nev’s desire to be loved and how easy it is to alter one’s identity on the internet, but i think it is just as interesting to look at the illness that is portrayed in a frank manner.

  • 19 9-17-2010 at 8:07 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think it’s actually a little insulting to call her “clearly a sick woman” based on these actions. Compulsive liar, sure. Depressed and sad, of course. “Sick?” A bit judgmental.

  • 20 9-18-2010 at 12:18 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I’m with Tapley. I didn’t know a thing about this movie until I saw it tonight. It’s amazing. And why do we always have to talk about if it’s fake or real? Who gives a fuck? It’s a great movie with something to say. Shut up and listen.

  • 21 9-18-2010 at 7:45 pm

    Matthew Starr said...


    When people make a movie like this or Blair Witch, people will wonder whether or not it is real or staged. That is simply human nature. People give a fuck about a lot of irrelevant things. Perhaps you shouldn’t give a fuck that they give a fuck?

    Although whether it is authentic or staged would not change my opinion. I flat out did not enjoy it nor was I moved by it. It did not speak to me or connect with me in any way, shape or form.

  • 22 9-19-2010 at 2:23 am

    Chuck Norris said...


    So if Catfish is staged, then Angela is an actress? And Angela’s husband? He’s an actor? And eight-year old Abby? She’s an actress?

    What’s more likely? Catfish as a documentary, or Catfish as a vehicle for some of the finest acting debuts to have ever been captured in the history of cinema?

    Kris and I are on the same page; the filmmakers probably strongly suspected (or outright knew) what the deal was and for dramatic purposes purposefully went along with Angela’s ruse for the sake of the film’s first and second act.

    I’m fine with that, because while the drama is intriguing, the true heart of the movie is Angela herself. Catfish’s approach allowed me to cultivate a strong empathy for her, and I’m really glad they allowed me this by their choice of confronting her with kindness instead of sanctimonious outrage.

    (That said, the one moment that made me feel uncomfortable and seemed superfluous was when Nev asked Angela to speak to him as Megan. That made me cringe.)

    The fact that I came away with actual respect and understanding for someone who could have easily been casually derided is a testament to the film and the filmmakers. These guys have heart, and even though they could barely operate their cameras, I’ll take heart over technical proficiency any day.

  • 23 9-19-2010 at 8:07 am

    Derek said...

    Ariel Schulman was at my screening Friday for a Q&A, and after hearing him speak about it, I feel pretty confident that it’s real. In regards to the catfish story, “too good to be true” – well, he agrees. Apparently Vince is just that kind of guy, who will talk your ear off about the most random nonsense, and the catfish story just happened to be one of those. And I’ve certainly known people like that before. He said they started shooting the film as like a 5-minute short subject film about an online relationship, then as the layers just kept unfolding, the more the project escalated until they realized with the discovery of the music that they had a feature. So from that point on, he said they were filming constantly. They had 2 cameras, and shortly after meeting Angela in person (at the Applebee’s dinner scene with Abby), asked her for permission to film. So she knew for the majority of the time that they were with her that they were filming, which is how the camera can be placed at the right place.

  • 24 9-19-2010 at 11:20 am

    bryan said...

    by sick, i meant ill. she is clearly mentally ill.

  • 25 9-21-2010 at 11:07 pm

    MovieMan said...

    Remarkable piece of filmmaking. Whether it’s real is unimportant. It makes an impact regardless, and the impact is indelible and unforgettable.

  • 26 10-02-2010 at 12:14 am

    Nick said...

    I agree that it made a huge impact on the viewer. Whether or not it is fake doesn’t change all that much. But what the hell is up with the “Best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never directed” crap? I honestly expected a horror movie. WTF Rogue?