Tapping into the zeitgeist of our increasingly virtual world, in which instant messages and Facebook accounts take the place of actual human contact, may be an increasingly popular concern among filmmakers, but it’s also an inherently difficult subject to address without succumbing to obvious tsk-tsking thesis statements. While David Fincher’s upcoming The Social Network, a look at the early days of Facebook, may well be the most high-profile film yet to address the impact of the virtual on contemporary society, it’s hardly the first to use social utilities to comment on “how we live,” the pithy summation applied to an earlier effort in the same vein, Antonio Campos’s techno-cautious 2008 film Afterschool, by one its most enthusiastic critical supporters. In that cynical and facile piece of work, a young prep school student spends his time watching YouTube-style novelty clips and violent pornography. Shockingly, when faced with real-life situations, he can only imitate the behavior learned from these websites, freezing in a voyeuristic pose when confronted with actual tragedy.
Catfish, the new documentary by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, is similarly concerned with the saturation of our lives with social media, but while it attempts to replace the pessimism of Campos’s film with a more humane orientation, it’s equally hampered by its inability to move beyond the obvious. So contrived in its manipulation of its plot developments and so awkwardly acted that a viewer can be excused for taking it as a mockumentary (though unless the whole thing is an elaborate hoax, it appears to be “real,” perhaps an intentional gesture of ambiguity on the part of the filmmakers), Catfish traces the fallout of a virtual relationship between Schulman’s photographer brother Nev and an allegedly eight-year-old Michigan-based artist who sends him painted versions of his published snapshots. Contacted initially by young Abby, Nev begins an online friendship with not only the young girl, but her mother and Megan, her apparent hottie of a 19-year-old sister, with whom he starts exchanging dirty text messages. When some inconsistencies in the family’s story become apparent, Nev and the filmmaking pair decide to head out to Michigan to investigate.
The first half of Schulman and Joost’s film seems principally concerned with cataloguing as many forms of virtual media as possible. Nothing is left out: We watch the characters make their daily use of Facebook, YouTube, iPhones, Photoshop, GPS navigators, and Google Chat. Whenever the trio travels, the filmmakers track their every move via Google maps, as if people only exist if their actions can be linked in to a virtual world. And yet all of this virtual engagement seems ridiculously contrived, the filmmakers forcing the point to make a simplistic comment on contemporary man’s reliance on social media. Similarly difficult to swallow is Nev’s increasing romantic fixation on Megan. While many people become obsessed with others they meet online, the thought of a young, handsome, and supposedly sophisticated Manhattan photographer going gaga over a 19-year-old girl living in Michigan that he’s never met seems manufactured to the point where the film’s claims to presenting rather than creating “reality” seem to be called severely into question.
Shifting gears several times, first toward a false start into thriller-horror territory, then to an empathetic portrait of bruised humanity, Catfish gains a measure of pathos in its turn from ironic commentary on contemporary life to a belated compassion. As the lies inherent in Nev’s virtual relationship tumble out one by one in predictable fashion, we’re left with a look at a deeply damaged individual who, whether or not her “authenticity” is confirmed, is too intensely marked with the rawness of hard circumstance to be so easily dismissed. And yet, considering that this woman’s chief thematic role is to suggest nothing more than the obvious fact that social media allows people to craft sophisticated alter-identities, and taking into account that most of the preceding film consisted of little more than a compendium of bad camerawork (“excused” by virtue of its verité technique), worse acting, and cheap illustrations of our virtual world, this final turn feels like a bit too little far too late. While Schulman and Joost deserve credit for revealing the human cost of social media obsession, their film chiefly illustrates the difficulty of moving beyond the obvious platitudes inherent in any cinematic work that attempts to definitely expose the Way We Live Now.