Facebook, Relationships And 'Catfish': It's Complicated

If ever a trailer did not depict what a movie is actually about it’s this trailer for Universal Pictures’ Catfish, a movie about Facebook the subject matter of which could not be further from that other movie about Facebook. I’d like to use this sentence to say “Spoiler Alert” about fifteen times because the next couple paragraphs are going to be full of them.

If you hate spoilers do yourself a favor and stop reading now. That said, the following exposition shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the movie, I’ve seen it twice and enjoyed both times.

Catfish is a movie about Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York photographer and his relationship with eight year old Abby Pierce and her 19-year-old sister Megan Faccio whom he meets on Facebook in 2007. I’m sure all of you can see this coming, but Megan isn’t who she claims to be and neither is Abby. Nev and Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and the viewer get taken for a wild and well-documented ride, especially for the last 40 minutes of the movie.

In summary Megan and a bunch of other Facebook identities are characters invented by artist Angela Wesselman’s imagination, as Wesselman is trapped in Michigan taking care of two disabled children and has no outlets for creative expression other than her paintings — which she ships to Nev Schulman under the guise of them being her (real) daughter Abby’s — and her elaborate storytelling on Facebook. “Scam is not the word,” say the filmmakers regarding Wesselman’s bait and switch.

Plot twists aside, the film uses social networking and other tropes unique to the Internet age such as Google Maps, “sexting” and Photoshop in order to give a richer view of the emotional narrative, as Nev Schulman and Angela/Megan’s digital courtship drags on for eight months of phone calls, MP3 exchanges and even Facebook wall “infighting” among the various imaginary members of the Pierce family. At some point Schulman sends Megan an IRL post card, and remarks how odd the act of sending snail mail is.

What’s the most interesting about the film is that Wesselman is a totally new kind of artist, creating a entire world for Nev through multiple fabricated online identities. When asked during a screening last week why he, as a self-proclaimed part of the “Google Generation” never bothered to Google search Abby Pierce or Angela Wesselman or Megan Faccio, Nev Schulman said he did and came up with nothing, not pushing it any further because wanted to believe. “There are plenty of people with no Google presence,” says Schulman. Heh

This ambiguity surrounding Catfish (including its bloody Catfish logo) has lead it to be the subject of many attacks most notably from Movieline in their post “Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have A Truth Problem?” which asserts that both the Schulmans and Joost knew that Megan wasn’t who she said she was right from the beginning. As counter to this, filmaker Ariel Schulman revealed that the movie is not being marketed as a documentary because the “D-word” turns off younger viewers to whom he thinks the film would be most beneficial as a cautionary tale.

While some scenes from the movie tend to reinforce the “they knew the entire time” hypothesis (as does Schulman’s shit-eating grin throughout) the “whether or not any of the boys suspected it” issue is complicated and best left to individual viewer discretion.

What should remain with you after seeing Catfish is how convincing the Facebook soap opera Wesselman pulled off could be to someone yearning for a human connection, and also as a side note, that model Aimee Gonzales’ boyfriend, whose images Wesselman used to pull off the ruse, chided her shortly after hearing about her inadvertent role in the film, “See I told you you shouldn’t have put all those pictures online.”

Catfish hits theatres September 17th, one month before the more glamorous “The Social Network.” Both Wesselman and Nev Schulman are still friends on Facebook.