IT'S NOT WHAT you think. Catfish markets itself as a documentation of a Facebook cautionary tale, cloaking its surprises in such a way as to allow the rest of us to imagine the worst of our paranoias: stalkers, scams, identity theft—pick your poison. To its (albeit unplanned) credit, Catfish goes in a less obvious direction, exploring the ways in which social networking—specifically when it takes the form of relationships that exist solely online—can supplement our self-perception, to occasionally disturbing extents.
The film begins with Nev Schulman, a young dance photographer in New York City, whose filmmaker brother, Rel, along with Henry Joost, begin making a documentary about an unusual relationship Nev has struck up online. How exactly it starts is unclear, but somehow a precocious eight-year-old Michigan girl named Abby seizes upon one of Nev's published photographs and recreates it as a painting. A pen pal relationship unfolds over Facebook, more photos and paintings are exchanged, and the apparently emotionally needy Nev proceeds to strike up relationships (and Facebook friendings, naturally) with Abby's mother, father, brother, and—hello—19-year-old sister, Megan. Long-distance romance blossoms, and while never having met, Megan and Nev begin to keep constant contact over computer, phone, and text, with increasingly erotic tones. It would be only a matter of time until they met, and what happens when they do is the surprise at the film's heart.
Some critics have intimated a suspicion that Catfish is engineered, at least in part. (We seem to be embarking on an era of filmmaking that, annoyingly, centers around this clash of reality and fantasy, all the more to exacerbate society's already dangerous anxieties.) Either that's the case, or Catfish's filmmakers were extremely hard up for subject matter, as at its outset, Nev's situation hardly seems compelling enough to warrant a feature-length. Nev, however, is boyishly charming, and the guys' bickering and clowning around are amusing enough to carry the film until it develops past what could've been a rather late-to-the-party document of the online dating experience to something more alarming and vaguely profound. It seems more likely that the trio, out of aimlessness, just lucked into an interesting situation.
In the end, Catfish isn't really a scare tactic to deter would-be online social networkers, and the situation Nev finds himself in is easily avoidable. (Hint: Meet people, then friend them, not the other way around.) The film perhaps serves best as a time capsule of its era; one can only imagine what it will look like after another 20 years of a society increasingly ordered online.