With the online world a part of typical American existence for more than 15 years now, it was hard to imagine that a movie could have anything all that new or interesting to tell us about the pleasures and perils of living digitally. That failure of imagination, fortunately, was mine, and not of Sundance documentary filmmakers
For a filmmaker attempting to explore the phenomenon of the online virtual realm Second Life, the challenge would be not to make the subjects targets of mockery, even unintentionally. Jason Spingarn-Koff finds just the right tone as he focuses on three stories representing a cross-section of Second Lifers: a man and woman who started an avatar “virtual affair” before meeting in real life; an entrepreneur whose Second Life business has become her source of income; and a man who has made his avatar an 11-year-old girl, much to his fiancée’s consternation. What emerges is a surprisingly complex study of virtual worlds both as unhealthy escape and as an opportunity for self-discovery, given a visual kick by Spingarn-Koff’s representation of himself as a documentary-filmmaking avatar interviewing his subjects in the SL world. The director makes no attempt to demonstrate that Second Life is “good” or “bad.” It simply is, in a way as messy and full of contradictions as … well, as life.
There’s even more wonderful, fascinating messiness in Catfish. As is the case with so many truly fascinating films, it’s not really possible to convey what’s so amazing about this one without spoiling its surprises. And as is the case with so many great documentaries, it becomes great when it goes somewhere the filmmakers couldn’t possibly have predicted. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost capture the unique story that begins when Ariel’s brother Yaniv, a New York photographer, strikes up an online friendship with an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby Pierce, who sends him a painting she says she created based on one of his published photographs. And then Yaniv “meets” Abby’s mother, Angela, through Facebook. And then he “meets” other family members, including Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister Megan. And the cyber-relationships become tangled in a way that turns Catfish into something that’s part detective story, and part piercing exploration of what gets people to turn to the virtual world for their relationships. It’s a rare experience to watch a movie that feels like a tense, gut-churning thriller one minute, then a heartbreaking human drama the next, while always remaining sharp and cohesive. The film is almost over before you get a hint of what the title means, but even then its elusive, multi-layered and terrifically human.