The story is initially pitched as a documentary following the relationship between photographer Nev Schulman, a gifted child artist named Abby, and her extended family. Nev and Abby began communicating (under the watchful eye of Abby's mother Angela) after Abby painted a version of one of Nev's photographs. As time passed, Abby sent more and more paintings while Nev slowly became enmeshed in the Facebook lives of Abby, her family and her friends, prompting Nev's brother Rel and pal Henry to begin making the documentary. The film gradually shifts focus from Abby and her painting to the tentative long-distance romance which is brewing between Nev and Abby's older half-sister Megan.
The first part of the film is flavoured with a naïve charm which encourages the viewer to leave their cynicism at the door - something some may find easier than others - after all, one of Facebook's most well flagged terms and conditions is that it is not open to use by anyone under 13 years of age. At the very least you would expect Abby's presence on the site to be explained better. Rel and Henry also never question Nev about the thorny issue of a photographer communicating with an unknown 8-year-old girl over the internet and why none of them attempted to research the child prodigy's story online as part of the documentary-making process.
In fact it's not until a casual visit to a search engine to look up a song Megan says she has sung for Nev that the cracks in Abby's family story begin to appear. At this point the documentary turns into an amateur detective story and the trio attempt to unravel the truth behind the Facebook family. The last segment of the film is devoted to a meeting with one of the people Nev has been interacting with online. Fans of explosive confrontations won't be satisfied with the results but the reaction of that person to being put on the spot is fascinating. The whole truth does not actually emerge until just before the end credits.
Ultimately the film is engaging and punctuated with humour and humanity but does require you to check your cynicism at the door. If you can't, it's entirely possible you'll spend a lot of the runtime suspecting Nev, Rel and Henry of telling a tall tale themselves. Some aspects do come across as contrived, especially if you happen to be even moderately internet savvy - it's a very naïve internet user who never entertains the possibility that the person they are interacting with might not be entirely honest. After all, stories about those who join dating agencies using a far more optimistic profile picture and description than nature has provided have become a staple of mainstream modern comedy - but then again, (MASSIVE SPOILER) why would you ever suspect someone of engaging in a massively convoluted Facebook deception involving photos, conversations and phonecalls?
Catfish is a tale as old as the internet itself - of frustrated ambitions and paths not taken lived out in cyberspace through stories told to people you will probably never meet. It's thought provoking without being overly confrontational and forms an interesting comparison to The Social Network. The rating is given as someone who left their cynicism in the cloakroom.
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