By Vic Holtreman
Short version: A fascinating look at the world of modern art (seriously!) and the questions of whether a four year old's paintings can compete and whether those paintings were genuine.
At the time of the documentary was shot, the Olmsteads had sold more than $300,000 worth of Marla's paintings. Those in the art world compared her work to Kandinsky, Pollock and even Picasso. Due to her extremely young age, her work captured the imagination of the world. Art openings, limousines, and television appearances became part of the family's routine. Then, thanks to a 60 Minutes segment which aired and cast doubt on the authenticity of Marla's work, and the Olmsteads' world changed in an instant.
Amir Bar-Lev, the director of the film, spent an entire year with the Olmsteads shooting this documentary. He became aware of them by reading a story about Marla and her paintings in the New York Times. His initial approach to the documentary was to take a look at the world of modern art, but as things progressed he saw that the real story was what was going on with Marla and her family.
We meet the family, consisting of Marla, a younger brother and her parents. The first half of the documentary tells the story of what led up to the discovery of Marla's paintings (first displayed at a local coffee shop just for fun) and the ensuing fame and eventual media blitz. The Olmstead's introduction to the world came through a local newspaper reporter who comes across as extremely ethical on both the journalism side of things as well as the human side. Before writing her initial story about Marla and her paintings, she asked the Olmsteads very clearly whether they really wanted her to write the story, because although there was a positive side to the publicity there could also be some negative consequences down the road.
As it turns out she was right.
Things are zooming along like an out of control freight train with first national and then international fame. The paintings sell for between $5,000 to $10,000 each and a waiting list forms for future paintings. We see that Marla's mom is much more reserved about the whole thing and wouldn't be unhappy if everything stopped tomorrow. She harbors concerns about the effect it is having on her family and her daughter in particular. Marla's dad on the other hand doesn't see any downside at all, and at one point his wife states that he really enjoys being the center of attention.
The documentary has an interview with a New York Times art critic who discusses modern (or abstract) art and the reasons behind the sometimes apparently insane valuations for what looks like some paint splashed on a canvas. Part of his explanation is that the story behind the artwork contributes to the value. What has the artist gone through, for example? In Marlas's case part of the value is due to the fact of her young age and the apparent sophistication of the work.
The film shifts gears drastically when we are at home with the Olmsteads watching them as they watch the broadcast of a 60 Minutes piece which they thought was going to be supportive of Marla's work. Instead its purpose was to raise serious doubts about the authenticity of Marla's paintings. Was she coached by her father? Did she paint them herself? Her father is an amateur artist who paints, which is how Marla came to be interested in doing it herself. Immediately afterwards their world begins to cave in on them as people in town now look at them as frauds and the possibility of lawsuits from previous buyers loom.
The director interjects himself into his own documentary to express his suddenly conflicted feelings on the entire project due to the extreme turn of events. I think this really adds to the sense of neutrality of the film as you see that this was very unexpected. He's known the family for quite a while now, and although they seem very honest and forthright he is plagued with doubts... in particular because throughout the months he's spent with them he has not managed to capture her creating one of her paintings on film.
In the end the family manages to at least partially gain back the trust of the art world by finally documenting on film themselves Marla creating a painting called "Ocean" from start to finish. Although that particular painting does share similarities to prior paintings, it actually seems less sophisticated than those that have come before. Since then they have documented another painting from start to finish called "Rain", which does seem to be closer to the style of the earlier paintings.
The viewer is left to draw their own conclusion and although I liked that the film did that, another part of me would have liked a definitive conclusion. Having said that, it's probably better that it was left open-ended because too many documentaries have an obvious agenda meant to convince the viewer of some particular point of view.
After the film I was fortunate enough to actually see some of Marla's paintings at a local art gallery. There are arguments both ways here, and it's a very tough call.
To learn more about Marla you can visit her official website.