When it comes to Catfish, the marketing of the movie and the film itself are inseparable. If you’ve seen the trailer, heard the deafening buzz, and avoided spoilers, Catfish is suspenseful and quite entertaining. But if you know (or assume) the supposed “twist,” Catfish is a ho-hum documentary with a familiar thesis.
The trailer outlines the basic premise of the movie: Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old photographer in New York, becomes emotionally entangled with a family in Michigan that he meets on Facebook and communicates with only over the Internet and on his iPhone. His brother and their roommate are filmmakers, who decide to begin to document the modern relationship, as Nev shares photos and paintings with 8-year-old Abby, emails with mother Angela, and flirtatious (increasingly sexual) banter with sexy older daughter Megan.
The trailer is whimsical and light-hearted, until suddenly the music becomes ominous, and overlayed text informs viewers that the final forty minutes will provide a “shattering conclusion” that will “take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride you won’t be able to shake for days.” The trailer ends as Nev’s brother says “You’ve just hit the edge of the iceberg,” and Nev screams to turn the camera off. The mysterious tagline on the movie poster warns: “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” The IMDb description describes it as “a reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times.”
For a film about truth and lies, Catfish takes liberties with its trailer. It isn’t a thriller. The ending, while interesting, isn’t shocking or particularly surprising. And at no point do the characters in the movie get particularly scared, worried, or tense.
The studio should almost be charged with false advertising, except for that the misleading expectations created by the trailer actually enhance the movie-going experience. If Catfish were presented as what it is—a timely, thoughtful documentary about the benefits and pitfalls of online relationships—the narrative would feel slow and unremarkable.
Instead, theaters are packed with anxious geeks ready to tweet their snap judgments, cheering and gasping their way through each development, grabbing their friends’ arms anticipating the real story behind Angela, Abby, and Megan. Buzz marketing at its best. The ultimate resolution feels satisfying because you were 100% emotionally connected to Nev throughout the film, paying attention to each detail. It’s never been so fun to eavesdrop on conversations leaving the theater: “Wait—when we get home, we have to find out if this was real.” “I almost died when they walked into the living room!” “How weird is the Internet, you guys, right?”
In the end, the mystery around the film serves not only to enhance the viewing experience, but also to amplify the resonance of the social commentary. Many interpret the film as a cautionary tale, but that’s an oversimplification. Rather, Nev and company are presenting the double-edged sword that is Internet communication. Yes, Nev was duped into believing falsehoods about the family from Michigan because of the anonymity afforded by the Internet. But more powerful is the way Catfish uncovers just how intimate online relationships can be.
While separated by dozens of states, without ever meeting in person, without actually knowing who he was talking to, Nev managed to forge three incredibly personal relationships. Through Facebook photos, text messages, and Gchat, Nev truly got to know and understand three identities—and shared himself with them fully. These new forms of communication are at the same time more intimate and less real than ever.
It won’t be surprising to the tech-savvy audience to see the degree to which one can deceive over Facebook. But Catfish might serve as an unexpected reminder that the friends they tag, tweet, and chat with online may be as legitimate as the one sitting next to them in the theater, offering them popcorn.
Starring: Megan Faccio, Nev Schulman, Rel Schulman.
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Runtime: 94 minutes