“If this is your documentary, you’re doing a bad subject.” So advises young Abby, an eight-year-old painter who’s contacted Nev Schulman, a 20something New York photographer, on Facebook. At first, Nev seems unconcerned as to whether his subject is “bad” or not. He’s apparently genuinely impressed with Abby’s talents, as she sends him paintings she’s made based on his photos. He seems blithely oblivious to the possibility that his interest in her might be a function of her interest in him, that in her very obvious reflections of his ideas and images, he is seeing a decidedly appealing version of himself.
The documentary Abby’s talking about, which ends up being Catfish, the movie you’re watching, is being directed by Nev’s brother Rel Schulman and Henry Joost. And it is immediately and pretty plainly less blithe and less oblivious than Nev. Though Abby sounds — in her Facebook posts, in her letters, and in her occasional phone conversations with Nev — like a child living in a happy enough household in rural Michigan, it soon becomes apparent in Catfish that she’s not actually Nev’s focus. Through the process of friending on Facebook, Nev soon learns that Abby has a good-looking 19-year-old sister, Megan. Intrigued, he begins to interact with her — through posts and texts and again, occasional phone conversations. Nev’s fast-developing relationships with the two girls are affected by his understanding of their mother, Angela, who “must be awesome,” he says, because her kids are.
Nev is especially impressed by Megan’s multiple talents: she plays instruments, acts, dances, and sings. When she begins sending Nev provocative photos and posting to Facebook a series of songs she’s composed and performed, he’s at first elated: this girl is the real deal, he imagines, the girl he wants. And then, one night — while he’s on camera — Nev notes that one song about a topic he’s requested has showed up on Facebook remarkably quickly. Hmm, he wonders, how can Megan be so perfect, so wondrous, and so right-on?
As you can imagine, Nev — along with Rel and Henry — begin to act on their questions. Indeed, they use the same technology to pursue a truth about Meagan as she has apparently been using to construct herself — the internet. As they head to searches on YouTube and Google Maps, lo, the boys discover what looks like a hoax. Now they become determined to get themselves un-duped, by finding out where the songs really come from, by finding out who Megan really is, as well as who Abby and Angela really are. It’s a bit ridiculous that it’s only at this point that these three new Yorkers decide to force a long-delayed f2f meeting with the increasingly elusive “Facebook family.” But their apparent gullibility — Nev’s especially, what with his giddy I’m-so-in-love-and-innocent exultations — has led them directly to this faux crisis.
And now they’ve got a film to finish.
The Facebook anxiety grounds the film’s more interesting question, which turns out to be less an investigation — or even a “reality thriller,” as it’s being promoted — than a single question. What is at stake, for whom, as Facebook has become a means to develop friendships and present and see yourself?
As Facebook both alleviates and exacerbates alienation and isolation, it offers users all manner of performance modes — from singing and posting to wanting and deluding. Catfish doesn’t actually resolve its primary question. Instead, it turns into a road trip, wherein Nev, Rel, and Henry consider their options incessantly, never questioning their own roles in the story, but finding increasing numbers of ways to blame the object of their desire — specifically, Megan. As Nev has projected onto her all his own needs and his ideals, he yet remains unwilling to feel responsible for his own Facebook (and phone, and text, and image) activities. If he is the dupe, he is blameless, apparently.
The more interesting question for Catfish — and also not resolved by the film per se — has to do with its own “truthfulness. If its premise is that Facebook is (potentially) a forum for all manner of deceit and self-delusion, it doesn’t provide any substantive self-analysis, how the film is itself constructed, how it participates in the “is-it-real-or-not” anxiety recently evoked by I’m Still Here. If resolution (as truth-telling) is not a desired end for Catfish, then at least it might pose the irresolution in a way that is less simplistic than an individual’s deception or even “deviance.” The condition is systemic and ongoing. That makes it complex and formidable, and sometimes “awesome.”