Catfish review

One of the most impressive, thought-provoking, documentaries of late, Catfish is the second film of the year to tap into the Facebook phenomenon. And here’s why it works…

An unexpected companion piece to The Social Network, and quite unpredictable in lots of other ways, Catfish has snuck in just at the end of the year as one of the most compelling and surprising cinematically released documentaries in some time.

It’s a film that, in the screening I caught the film at, seemed to divide the audience into those who could laugh broadly at what was happening on screen, and those who got a growing sense of unease. Whichever camp you start in at the beginning of the film, and there’s no right or wrong here, it’s likely that your viewpoint will have shifted several times by the time the credits roll.

That’s the skill of Catfish, although to tell too much would be spoil a film that deserves to be unravelled cold. At its most basic, it’s about a man, Nev Schulman, who receives a painting of a photograph he’s taken. It turns out that the painting, and the ones that follow, have come from a young girl, whom he befriends and swaps messages with on Facebook.

But things evolve from that point on, and the film ultimately explores the mixture of emotions and facets that come with a relationship that begins to develop online, and the impact it has both in real and virtual life. As I said, I’ve held back much of the detail here, as even though it’s not a film that relies on one or two spoilers, it’s the way it evolves that makes it work so well.

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It’s also, it should be noted, very cleverly made. I’m not just talking about the presentation, which is a mix of handheld camera and web-savvy effects (including a take on the Universal logo that rivals the opening to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World). Rather, that the range of the film’s subject is explored through Nev and the two directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, all of whom appear in the film. They nudge the story, even when Nev himself is far from keen.

Yet, what makes Catfish so strong is the manner in which it lingers in your head long after the credits have rolled. I found it an oddly uncomfortable film to watch, and really struggled with parts of it. Granted, its often quite raw style won’t win everyone over, but it’s hard to see how the subject could have been dealt with much better. It’s a skilful documentary, by skilful filmmakers.

And it’s also, sneaking in just weeks from the end of the year, one of 2010’s finest, a film that ultimately has as much input into the debate over the social networking phenomenon as Aaron Sorkin’s outstanding The Social Network script.

There’s some debate generating online as to just how true the events depicted in the film are, although the filmmakers strenuously stress that it’s the whole truth. That’s the debate for after you’ve seen the film, though. For now, this is exactly the kind of challenging documentary that rarely makes the impact it should on the big screen. Do try and give it your support.

Catfish is on limited release in the UK now.

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4 out of 5