Catfish is an odd, strange and very moving documentary that starts as a portrait of the 21st century practice of online romance, then turns into a baffling mystery worthy of Hitchcock and then emerges as a touching portrait of human identity. If that all sounds too complicated, relax, the film is one of the most approachable documentaries you are ever likely to see.
The story, told without narration, begins with two young twenty-something brothers Ariel and Yaniv Schulman (nicknamed “Nev”) and their friend Henry Joost. They run an office in New York where they make videos and photographs of dancers in their element. One day Nev gets a painting in the mail of one of his photos from an 8 year-old girl in Michigan named Abby Pierce. They begin talking on the internet; she is very wisely accompanied in her correspondence by her mother Angela. Through the correspondence, Nev discovers that Abby is a child prodigy who’s talent for painting is beyond belief.
Through Facebook, Nev also meets several members of Abby’s family, including her father Vince and her much older half sister, a breathtaking beauty named Megan. It is with this older half-sister that Nev’s attention quickly focuses. She is a model and a multi-talented musician and she and Nev quickly form an online romance. They correspond on Facebook, through text messages and through emails. She sends him hundreds of photos and occasionally records covers of songs for him. Through Photoshop, he crops photos of the two of them together, apparently topless. Eventually, he is able to talk to her on the phone.
Let me stop for a second. Here is where I am going to discuss some crucial plot points that may be considered spoilers. I won’t boldly give away anything but if you’re intent on seeing the movie cold, you may want to stop here.
Nev gets excited about Megan, he talks to her constantly and is thrilled that she is so eager to talk to him. Yet, as their correspondence continues, he begins to get an odd feeling that something just isn’t right. He’s perplexed after their first conversation on the phone that the voice sounds “a little too mature”. When she records and sends him a song, he’s disturbed when he uncovers the same recording on another website under a different name that sounds exactly the same. Nev and Henry and Ariel begin to suspect that Nev is being buffaloed, that Megan isn’t quite what she claims to be. If this is not Megan, then who is she? What follows is a step by step investigation to uncover the truth about Megan, beginning with her location in the small farm town of Ishpeming, Michigan. Nev, Ariel and Henry pile in the car and head for Ishpeming and pay Megan a visit. What happens next, I won’t reveal except to say that what started as an interesting expose into online romance turns quickly into a touching human drama. What the guys find out about Abby’s family is heartbreaking, especially Abby’s mother Angela who is one of the most endearing people I’ve ever met in a movie. She is deep, complex and achingly sad. What we discover about her and her family is very odd because it affirms the idea that things are not always as they seem, in life or on the internet.
I know that it sounds like I have given everything away but as the mystery of Megan and Abby and Angela unfolds it only gets deeper and more profound, especially during the closing scenes when all of the pieces come together. Even as the closing credits emerge, the mystery is still unfolding and some of it we watch with bated breath.
The thrill of Catfish is the narrative. We meet these three guys and all through their journey we only know what they know. The film does what great documentaries do, it uncovers amazing facts and fascinating people through the simple process of investigation. Some have questioned the validity of Catfish, of whether or not the facts are real or fiction. Is this all made up? Did these guys stage all this in order to make a compelling documentary? Well, I will let you judge for yourself, all I can say is that I bought their story. I found it fascinating, heartbreaking and very moving.