Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have a Truth Problem?

At the end of yesterday's well-received screening of Catfish -- easily the most buzzed-about documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- one man raised his hand for the Q&A.

"This may be a minority opinion," he said. "I think you guys did a great job, but I don't think it's a documentary."

A murmur went through the crowd and the filmmakers became angry and defensive, but more on that later. In the meantime: Brother, I'm right there with you. There's something fishy about Catfish, and I'm not just talking about the title.

Catfish is directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost and stars Schulman's photographer brother Nev, a good-looking 24-year-old who's also very comfortable in front of a camera (despite his cursory protests to the contrary). Shortly after Nev takes a picture of two dancers for the New York Sun, he's sent a painting of the photo from an eight-year-old painter named Abby Pierce, who he then befriends on Facebook along with her mother, Angela, and Abby's foxy older sister Megan. Soon enough, the film posits, Nev begins falling for Megan, and the two of them begin a long-distance internet courtship since Megan and her family live in rural Michigan. Still, things are not quite as they seem.

(I'll warn you now that there will be some spoilers to follow, though many of the film's principal surprises will go unrevealed by me.)

After several months -- all filmed, of course -- Nev and the filmmakers grow suspicious when they learn that the intimate, unplugged songs that Megan has sent to Nev weren't actually recorded by her. Conveniently, they're already on a trip to the midwest when they figure this out, so they decide to drive to the family's house to figure out whether any of the Pierces truly exist, and who exactly is behind what increasingly appears to be a ruse.

What they find and film there is ultimately a very sad, lonely person, though Nev and the filmmakers (wearing shit-eating grins through the encounter) try to skirt charges of exploiting her by leaning heavily on all that build-up. All three men claim that they had no idea that anything was amiss during those several months of online and on-the-phone chats. I don't buy it at all; I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax.

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