I’m a sucker for documentaries about cute kids.
Spellbound, that ode to the awkward adolescent, is one of my favorite films. Along with the senior citizens that formed the rest of the theater audience, I cried when the city kids triumphed in tango at the end of Mad Hot Ballroom.
Therefore, when I heard the story of kid painter Marla Olmstead was set to hit the multiplex, I knew I had to see it. With her big brown eyes and apple cheeks, there’re not many cuter than this four-year-old “genius”.
More than Marla’s winsome personality, however, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary is about the quotation marks around the word “genius”. There is no doubt that Marla’s paintings are beautiful. But did she really create them? Or is she simply part of a publicity machine, fueled with smoke and mirrors created by her parents?
The family’s story is this: Father Mark, an amateur artist, was painting one day when Marla interrupted. Rather than distracting her, Dad gave her a brush. A family friend hung her canvases on the walls of his coffee shop. The public noticed. Next thing you know, the tot was appearing in national headlines.
“Every single thing about these paintings is perfect” gallery owner Anthony Brunelli tells Bar-Lev early in the film. The family is nice and normal and attractive, says Brunelli, (whose self-serving machinations make him one of the film’s only clear villains.) The paintings are colorful and gregarious. Marla and her kid brother are Gap-ad adorable.
Marla is not interested in answering questions about her work, though. She’d rather cajole Bar-Lev into helping her put together a puzzle than shed some light on the puzzle that is her artistic mind. Does that make her a fraud? Or a four-year-old?
The story isn’t just about Marla. It’s about every art-lover who ever went to the modern art gallery of a museum, saw the colorful blobs or overly simplistic shapes on the wall and wondered: “Why is that considered art? My kid could paint that!”
The documentary’s turning point is a haunting sequence from early 2005, when Marla’s parents watch a 60 Minutes segment about her work. Local media are in the Olmstead living room and the couch area has been dramatically lit to catch the couple’s reactions to the story. Their demeanor and facial expressions change from pride and excitement to quite the opposite as the nationally televised piece suggests that Mark is coaching Marla.
Sales of Marla’s paintings taper off. Newspapers publish less than flattering follow-ups. The fluffy human-interest puff story about childhood exuberance funneled through prodigy-like creativity has turned into a controversy. Instead of Jackson Pollock and Shirley Temple, Marla is now being compared to Jayson Blair.
“I don’t think anyone knows what you’re going to do with the story,” a local journalist tells Bar-Lev. A conversation between the two is interspersed throughout the second half of My Kid Could Paint That , as Bar-Lev becomes a character in his own documentary.
His inclusion seems a little like a self-serving gimmick at first. But ultimately, Bar-Lev has been put in the position of declaring Marla’s authenticity – or outing her as a fraud. The documentary isn’t just the story of this family, but a fascinating peek into the filmmaker’s self-conscious as he struggles to figure out the truth.
Ordinary people let journalists and filmmakers into their lives because they trust that the end result will tell the truth. But Bar-Lev is caught in one of the horrible traps created by that trust – what happens when your truth is different than the subject’s?
“I’d rather be stupid and not know about this kind of stuff,” Bar-Lev camera-talks during a nighttime drive after spending the day with the Olmsteads. “It’s only tonight that I realized that I’m going to have to call some people liars who, on the face of it, are like the nicest people. What’s my investment in it?”
The debate continues in the extras, which include a collection of deleted scenes and updates, a commentary with Brunelli and the film’s editor and ruminations on art from a New York Times critic. Among the sequences left on the cutting room floor is father Mark showing off some of Marla’s marker drawings. Mark discusses his daughter’s genius while paging through ordinary, messy toddler art. It’s an uncomfortable moment, as is another deleted scene of a professor fawning over the paintings.
The fallout from the documentary strengthens the case that, fraud or no, Marla should have just been left to be a kid, rather than a marketing tool. She remains the most abstract part of the story, a girl with no motive caught in a web of adults who are full of them.