Fish Tale

The twisty new documentary Catfish examines how well we really know the people we meet online

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(L to R) ARIEL SCHULMAN, HENRY JOOST and NEV SCHULMAN in a reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times. Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.

In 2007, from a stranger a thousand miles away, a New York City photographer named Yaniv "Nev" Schulman received the gift of a bad painting. It was a painstaking re-creation of a photo he had taken of a female dancer held aloft by her partner against a dusky sky. As a photograph, it was nice enough (if a bit overly romantic) to take up half a page of the now defunct New York Sun; the painting, rendered in pastel tones, only enhanced the cheesiness lurking within.

Nev was touched and flattered, so much so that he seems to have skipped the natural impulse to question whether the gesture was weird or creepy. But why would he? The artist was an 8-year-old girl, Abby, from the tiny town of Ishpeming, Mich., who had reached out to him via Facebook. His peculiar online friendship with Abby quickly expanded to include her family: mother Angela, father Vince and Angela's stunning, long-limbed 18-year-old daughter from another marriage, Megan.

Soon Nev was getting boxes jammed with Abby's artwork, and each time he opened one, filmmakers Ariel "Rel" Schulman, Nev's brother, and Henry Joost were there with a camera. Perhaps because of their editing, we never see Nev ask, the way most of us would, "What on earth am I going to do with all this amateur art?" Instead, he's charmed by Abby's desire to please an adult man she's never met.

Nev is even more charmed by Megan, who rides horses, raises chickens and plays guitar. She records dreamy ballads and uploads them to Facebook. Soon they're chatting on the phone, sexting, calling each other "babe" and discussing what will happen when they meet in person (undressing, certainly). Then the brothers Schulman and Joost decide to drop in on the family unannounced. The Social Network, David Fincher's much anticipated feature film about Facebook, hits theaters in October, but as you watch Catfish, squirming in anticipation of the trouble that must lie ahead — why else would this be a movie? — you're likely to think this is the real face of social networking.

The trio is guided by GPS and Google Maps and spurred on by images of places they recognize from Facebook; their journey is illustrated with jaunty blue arrows that yank us around Michigan. (You'd be hard-pressed to find a film that more closely approximates our computer-dependent existence.) They arrive at Megan's home full of nervous excitement. "I feel like we're about to get our SAT scores back," Rel says. What do they find? I won't tell — much of the joy in the movie is in the way the mystery unravels — except to say, Imagine one of Diane Arbus' more macabre photographs, the kind that make you grateful for your own life, no matter how sorry it might be. Then imagine the surprising tenderness and decency that could actually counter that tragic sense of isolation.

Before you get to such revelations, however, you have to wade through your reservations about the whole enterprise. You'll start by doubting that pretty hipster Nev places much value on these virtual friendships (or, for that matter, that he needs Facebook to meet girls). You'll wonder whether Abby's parents might be familiar with Amir Bar-Lev's excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which investigates whether the work of a successful child artist is actually a hoax perpetuated by her parents. You'll question why these young men thought to pick up their cameras in the first place. Sure, they're filmmakers, but are contemporary youth so narcissistic that they document all aspects of their lives in the hope that one will coalesce into something sellable? Finally, are Nev, Rel and Henry that cynical? Or that gullible? Of those two, which would we rather they be — or we be?

The answer, it turns out, is somewhere in between, and the film ushers us to that merciful middle ground. This is the second documentary this month that challenges us to decide what we believe. (Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, which is either a hoax or a savage account of actor Joaquin Phoenix's descent into fat, furry idiocy, opened Sept. 10.) But while I'm Still Here is likely to leave viewers fairly certain of its inauthenticity, Catfish ultimately convinces us it's sincere. Yes, its subjects are manipulated in the name of lively filmmaking, but we also see some things we might not expect from the Facebook generation. Kindness, for one. And chivalry. It's not dead. In fact, it's still here.