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.

First of all, it strains believability that these savvy, plugged-in New Yorkers didn't have any doubts about the Pierces until several months in. The most telling sign is that Schulman and Joost were filming the supposedly naive Nev for all those months and even recording his phone calls with the family -- and to what end? After the screening, Ariel Schulman claimed that he simply happens to film his brother all the time because he finds him "cinematic"; an alternate story the filmmakers have also told is that they'd merely planned to document the story of an online relationship (Really? Without any actual investigation into who Nev is courting?), and then Catfish's wild narrative just happened to present itself. "We weren't planning to make a film until [the discovery of the plagiarized songs]," Schulman insisted.

His claims of innocence are hard to believe. Despite the fact that there were meticulously faked Facebook pages for Abby, Megan, and Angela, a simple Google search of the Pierces blows holes in their story (especially the notion that Abby's painting made her a local celebrity), and you're telling me that a pair of young filmmakers documenting said story would never think to Google their mysterious subjects over a span of several months?

Schulman and Joost let us listen in on Nev's cursory calls with Angela and romantic calls with a strangely Angela-like Megan, but when Nev says months later that he's never spoken to precocious painter Abby on the phone -- and apparently never grew suspicious about that -- it begs credulity. Meanwhile, to go by Angela's own Facebook pictures, she looks even younger than her supposed daughter Megan. If the filmmakers didn't think that was strange, then they're truly gullible bumpkins.

And that's the thing: They're not. They're smart tech-heads who tote iPhones, brandish expensive handheld cameras, show off their American Apparel underwear, and have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Though Nev supposedly falls for Megan, it's telling that he doesn't really talk to her in his own voice; instead, the messages we see him send to her feel like snickered-over bait composed by him, his brother, and Joost. Of course, the movie's first hour couldn't consist simply of three guys coming up with ways to taunt a lonely wackadoo who's come into their orbit, so the filmmakers go overboard shooting each other's claims of surprised, open-hearted innocence. (Notably, both directors have acting credits.)

So what happened when that man in the Q&A said that he didn't think the film was a documentary? "What is it then?" Schulman sneered.

"I think it's really a faux documentary," the man replied.

Instead of asking him to explain, Schulman leapt to a conclusion. "Oh, so you're saying that my brother is the best actor in the world? Let's hear it for my brother! The next Marlon Brando, ladies and gentlemen!" he said, applauding.

The cheers Schulman led drowned out his questioner. Then, the filmmaker continued, his voice raising an octave.

"Thank you very much! Oh, and we're the best writers in Hollywood? Thank you everyone!"

With that, Schulman cut off both the Q&A and his questioner.