Though the marketing of “Catfish” may have unwary viewers believing it to be a thriller of sorts, it’s actually something a bit more conventional. This doesn’t stop it from being suspenseful and, at times, unsettling, through the final payoff.
The movie is a documentary on a young New York photographer named Nev Schulman, filmed by his brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost. Nev develops a Facebook friendship with Abby, a talented eight-year-old artist fin Michigan who likes to send him painted reproductions of his photos. He quickly becomes friends with her entire family, and enters into a long-distance relationship with her much older half-sister, Megan.
A few months go by, and as some cracks begin to show, New and his friends grow suspicious; it seems much of what they’ve been told about Abby, Megan, and their family just doesn’t add up. The properties that the family owns do not seem to actually belong to them; the music that Megan writes and records seems to have been ripped off from websites.
The group decides to make a surprise visit to Michigan, and the twist in what they find is more sad than shocking. That the distributor (understandably) doesn’t want this revealed before interested viewers have had a chance to see “Catfish” has led to the aforementioned misleading advertising; the Catch-22 situation that arises is that some viewers are going to be disappointed in the big reveal.
The movie probably would have benefited more from a straighter approach, one that would have resulted in a more intriguing character study. Still, it’s an effective cautionary tale on the Facebook phenomenon that forces anyone who’s ever engaged with someone online to stop and think about the malleable “reality” of the virtual world. That it opened so close to the release of “The Social Network” makes for some appropriate co-programming.