"Catfish" eludes simple categorization but it's a good bet that those who succumb to its loose-lips-sink-ships marketing campaign will discover that talking about or arguing over "Catfish" is very easy once its secrets are opened. Some of those post-film discussions might even ponder elements of the story that seem deliberately kept under wraps. But more on that later.
The movie begins with New York-based filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, cameras at the ready, blithely turning Ariel's telegenic 24-year-old photographer brother Nev into a DIY movie star when an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby contacts Nev via Facebook to ask if she can make a painting of one of his published photos. The precocious talent evident in the artwork leads to a modern-age fiber-optic camaraderie between Nev and Abby's family: phone chats with proud mother Angela, flirty IM sessions with attractive teenage sister Megan, protective e-mails from brother Alex. Soon the ever-present cameras appear to be recording a blossoming romance between real-world Nev and online Megan, their easy virtual intimacy like a safe hedge against the nervous reality of inevitable in-person contact: What happens when Facebook-to-Facebook becomes face to face?
That you keep asking yourself who the people in Nev's new social media circle really are, though, is the filmmakers' none-too-subtle indication that deceptions are to be unearthed. (And it all started with artistic renderings of photoreality? Hmmm....) As eminently watchable as Schulman's and Joost's hi-def snipe hunt ultimately becomes — with an on-the-fly road trip that goes from Gchat to GPS to Gotcha! — there's the queasy sense that Joost and the Schulmans were third-act-savvy all along. In the end, their ready compassion for the construct of a well-intentioned, emotional artifice may frustrate more cynical moviegoers with appropriately nagging questions about amateur detective work. For instance, how naïve about our façade-friendly, pixilated world could a bunch of search-engine-aware New York videographers really have been?
But "Catfish" was built to charm, not indict, and on that front it makes for a diverting seriocomic wade into the pitfalls of Internet-based immediacy, and by extension, the manipulative mysteries of documentary assemblage. Whether you consider Nev a grinning magician's assistant or a smiling romantic, Schulman and Joost show an admirable respect for the power of willful enchantment, be it wrought from an identikit-friendly cyberspace made to buttress lonely souls, or cinematic tools that have come to the aid of crafty storytellers for a lot longer.