Nev Schulman is smitten hook, line and sinker by what he calls "the Facebook family." After the 24-year-old photographer from New York publishes a photo of a ballet dancer in The New York Sun, Nev receives a package containing a painting of the photo made by a prodigiously talented eight-year-old girl named Abby Pierce, who lives in Michigan.
Charmed, Nev begins an online friendship with the girl, sending her online messages and receiving more paintings in return. Soon enough, Nev becomes Facebook friends with Abby, her mother, father and other friends, who all thank Nev for being so kind to the little girl. He marvels at how wonderful the whole family is, despite never having met them in person.
Intrigued by Abby, Nev's filmmaker brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost decide to document the online relationship. And when Nev meets Abby's older half-sister online, a gorgeous 19-year-old singer and dancer named Megan, Nev finds himself in a love story that morphs into an astoundingly gripping tale of how we construct our identities online and the ways in which social media can manipulate our emotions and beliefs.
Shot in vérité style, handheld cameras follow Nev everywhere as he slowly realizes that not everything is at it seems with this sweet family from Michigan.
Increasingly uncomfortable with having a camera capture his every move, Nev begins to argue with his brother about continuing the project. At the same time, however, he begins to wonder just what other falsehoods he has unwittingly accepted as truth.
Did Abby really have a gallery showing? Is Megan really the talented singer Nev once so fully believed she was? Is Megan even the person she claims to be on Facebook? Is her picture on the site even what she truly looks like? What does Nev really know about a group of people he has never met face-to-face?
The possibility that everything Nev has felt for Megan and Abby and their parents has been based on a complete deception is so devastating that he and the filmmakers decide to drive to Michigan to finally discover the truth. The tension of the trip is so gripping it is almost unbearable. Like a great thriller, you know that something incredible and unsettling awaits Nev, but have no idea just what it is going to be.
The film is so filled with unexpected twists and wild revelations that to provide more details would only spoil the many shocks it offers.
A smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered earlier this year, the story Catfish tells is so improbable that it will leave audiences wondering if it is trading in the same sort of deceit that it purports to chronicle. Is Nev really so naive that he would accept all of the family's claims without the slightest bit of doubt for so long? Is it really possible that anyone could fall into such involved online relationships without being in the least bit circumspect? How did the filmmakers know to have their cameras rolling when Abby's first package arrived?
Even the anecdote Abby's father tells that explains the film's title seems too perfect to have not been scripted. And the fact that the movie studio releasing Catfish is calling it a "reality thriller," and not a documentary per se, is good reason to be skeptical.
Like I'm Still Here and Capturing the Friedmans whose director, Andrew Jarecki, co-produced Catfish, it is a documentary that leaves you wondering where the truth lies, and whether the filmmakers are honest observers or just as manipulative as their subjects.
To leave Catfish not asking those sorts of questions would be to miss the entire point of the film.
But as Nev confronts the Pierce family, finding a woman who is at once shockingly manipulative and deserving of his sympathy, Catfish shows that the need to dispel lies isn't nearly as important as how we respond when we finally uncover the truth.
- Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
- Starring Nev Shulman and Megan Faccio
- Classification: 14A