Screen Rant’s Rob Frappier & Mike Eisenberg do a dual review of Catfish

One of the most buzzed-about films at this year’s Sundance film festival was the intriguing documentary Catfish. The film focuses on the story of a New York City photographer, Nev Schulman, who befriends a seemingly prodigious 8-year-old painter, Abby, on Facebook.

As Nev grows closer to Abby, who regularly sends him paintings of his photographs, he connects with the rest of her virtual network on Facebook, including other members of her family. One of these connections is to Abby’s attractive older half-sister Megan.

As Nev and Megan grow closer together through Facebook, and then through telephone calls and text messages, Nev’s brother Ral and his co-director Henry Joost begin to document the relationship. Eventually, Nev decides that he wants to meet Megan in person, but she is evasive. Soon, the trio begin noticing inconsistencies in Megan’s behavior, so they set out on a trip to the tiny town of Ishpheming, Michigan to seek the truth.

It is best if we leave the plot description there. Suffice it to say, the film and its stranger-than-fiction story has set the Internet ablaze with discussion. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the film has achieved uniform critical praise. While many reviewers enjoyed the film, many others did not. Here at Screen Rant, we have one of each.

I, Rob Frappier, saw the film and thought it was excellent. My colleague, Mike Eisenberg, saw it and didn’t enjoy it at all. So, rather than only  giving you one review to read, we’re giving you two. Enjoy them both (be advised that there will be some unintentional SPOILERS in our reviews) and make your own decision about whether you will go and see Catfish this weekend.

Rob’s Review – 4.5/5 Stars

I went into Catfish knowing virtually nothing about the film – and boy am I glad I did. If you have seen any advertising for this film, you will undoubtedly expect a different movie. The trailers suggest something akin to a real-life horror story. They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re misleading. Besides, Catfish is so much more.

In my opinion, there hasn’t been a movie this year that has delivered as much suspense, humor, and heartbreak as Catfish. Furthermore, without going deeply into the central mystery of the film (knowing as little as possible is the way to go), I can also say that no movie to date has approached the ups and downs of living in the ultra-wired world of Facebook, Google, and YouTube as intelligently and provocatively as Catfish does.

We rarely think about it, but we live in a world straight out of science fiction. Sure, there are no flying cars or personal robots (yet), but just consider the Internet. In fractions of a second, I can send a stupid cat video to fellow Screen Rant writer Ross Miller…in Scotland. Every single day, millions of people use their mobile phones to share their up-to-the-minute thoughts with the world on Twitter. Need directions? Google not only gives you the address you’re looking for, but satellite photos to boot.

And then there’s the big boy of the social networking world, Facebook. Facebook – with its more than 500 million users – has helped to usher in a new era of social interaction. With nothing but a picture, a short biography, and a handful of likes and dislikes, it is possible to create an approximation of your actual personality. Factor in the way you interact with friends and family, as well as the links and content you share on your Facebook wall, and suddenly the digital version of you starts to become much clearer. In a sense, it becomes who you actually are, at least to the mind of a stranger.

That’s where Catfish makes its most fascinating discoveries. Search engines like Google have made it infinitely easier and faster to access information. On the flipside, social media has given us the ability to create our own version of reality. So, how can you tell if the person on the other end of your instant message, text, tweet, or wall post is actually who they say they are? What compels us to reach out to strangers online? Can online relationships provide the same level of emotional satisfaction as “real” relationships?

Some people have criticized the film for being inauthentic, calling it a faux-documentary. I understand their complaints. The way that events unfold certainly strains credulity, but even if it were partially staged (and for the record I don’t think it is) that doesn’t make it any less compelling.

I think that many people have a limited view of documentary film. They are often thought of either as agenda-driven films – such as the docs of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock – or simply informational films, such as March of the Penguins. In Catfish, we see something different: this is a mystery film. Things occur in ways that we could never anticipate or expect. It feels like a narrative film, but it isn’t. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all the more reason to see it.

I will need to see Catfish again to cement my feelings, and to speculate further just how much the three guys really knew about what they were getting into, but I think that when all is said and done, this movie will be considered an important touchstone of the Internet generation, and one of the most memorable documentary films in history.

Read Mike Eisenberg’s “Thumbs down” review of Catfish

Mike’s Review – 1/5 Stars

What a difference a trailer makes. The moment I saw the first trailer for Catfish I was sold. I’ve seen enough documentaries about the state of social media and was ready for a real story turned disastrous. The only problem is, the trailer was a total lie.

I wanted to enjoy Catfish for what it tried to be – a documentary about the masks we create on the Internet. Ultimately, the film was a boring journey alongside some lovable losers of the Internet age.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost followed their friend Nev on what they perceived to be an engaging journey to the bottom of a rabbit hole. The only problem is that Catfish never gives its audience a desire to even look at that rabbit hole. While the entire first act establishes the far-from-normal relationship between Nev and his online friend, it never snaps. Rather than presenting a snapshot of real America, it makes me wonder how boring we look to the rest of the world.

I spent every minute waiting for something, anything, to happen that would pin me to my seat with intrigue. The only moment in which Catfish presents a shred of curiosity comes in the form of an unbelievably contrived scene. The three friends decide to visit the supposed farm of Nev’s Internet friend, but arrive at 2:00 a.m. Why would anybody ever visit a stranger on a secluded farm at 2:00 a.m. unless they were trying to force the audience into a corner?

This wouldn’t have been so bad if the documentary took a turn for the fictional (like the trailer suggests). It wouldn’t have been so bad if the documentary actually went somewhere from there (like the critic blurbs in the trailer suggest). To me it seems that when the big “reveal” occurs, the filmmakers realize (off-camera) their documentary is in trouble. They hit a dead end, but decide to keep the cameras rolling in a desperate attempt to find an interesting character.

Most of Catfish is a provoked commentary on the state of America’s personality crisis. If they would have only promoted it as such, we the audience wouldn’t be so distracted from our purpose. In hindsight, the marketing campaign is an insult to the public. Is there absolutely no faith left for audiences to observe a documentary about a timely topic – especially given the upcoming release of The Social Network?

This brings me to the filmmakers’ aesthetic style. For a short time it is easy to buy into the gritty, handheld visual style – it feels real. Soon enough, it becomes an arduous task for the audience. Along with chalkboard-scratching sound design, the humble style becomes headache-inducing. But when the crew finally believes they have a truly inspiring film (around 2/3 through the film), the equipment mysteriously improves. If they had access to quality equipment, why not use it from the start? I find it hard to believe they had no idea the documentary would be worth the use of better equipment.

I respect the filmmakers’ attempt to follow real life. It is difficult to make any feature film. But the studio behind Catfish can’t possibly think they have another low-budget box office Cinderella on their hands. Catfish is a shell of a good documentary, hidden behind a hideous mask that distracts its audience from the film’s true purpose.

It’s hard to imagine how this film would have played out for me if I never saw the trailer. Maybe it would have been my favorite documentary since The Cove. Trailer or not, I found Catfish to be a bore. My anticipation for its ultimately underwhelming finale was not even enough to get me through the weak social commentary.

Don’t feel like you missed anything if you don’t see Catfish. I see it as  a missed opportunity by filmmakers who thought they would stumble upon a compelling mystery. Instead, the blank spaces are filled in with close-up computer screenshots that only remind us of The Social Network‘s riveting trailer. Maybe if the studio powers who brought us Catfish didn’t find such dull material so intriguing, we wouldn’t have to sit through it. But here we are.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hope you enjoyed our first point/counter-point review. Let us know what you think about it, and Catfish below.

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To let Rob know what you thought of his review, tweet your response to @robfrappier

To let Mike know what you thought of his review, tweet your response to @Eisentower30

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