Every savvy Internet-user knows this story. Boy “meets” girl. Boy stalks girl on Facebook. Girl looks cute, so boy calls girl. Girl sends boy music. Boy sends girl dirty texts. Ah, love in the digital age.
But “Catfish” will make one think twice about the now-commonplace ‘Facebook romance.’ Unlike “The Social Network,” the other Facebook-themed film coming out this season, “Catfish” is not a dramatized account. Instead it’s a (purported) documentary that superficially resembles a suspense film; even the filmmakers, Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost, participate in the story as it unfolds. “Catfish” is saturated with familiar digital imagery—the Facebook homepage, lists of wall posts, Gmail inboxes—lulling the viewers into a false sense of Internet security. But as the film progresses, that sense of safety is revealed to be dangerously illusory.
The story follows Nev Shulman, a twenty-something photographer living in New York City, through his fraught online relationship with an unnamed Michigan family. Nev shares an office with his brother Ariel, a filmmaker who happens to be in the right place at the right time, and starts filming the correspondence as it progresses.
It all starts when Nev gets a package from an 8-year old girl who has made a painting based on one of his photographs that was published in a magazine. Abby becomes his pen pal, and ultimately Nev begins to communicate with the whole family through email and Facebook, including Abby’s mother Angela and her older sister Megan. Megan turns out to be a model, photographer, and musician, and she and Nev start a steamy online long-distance relationship. They text, call, Gchat, and even send each other postcards in a fit of snail-mail nostalgia. Unfortunately, Nev decides to drive out to Michigan to meet his dream girl in person.
Obviously, nothing turns out quite as Nev thinks it will. But without spoiling the plot’s surprising conclusion, it’s safe to say that “Catfish” exposes some of the most basic lies many tell themselves when escaping from reality on the Internet. And while there is no ax-murdering involved, this is as horrifying a psychological thriller as any Hitchcock movie.
Nev Shulman carries almost the entire film, since most of the other “characters” are either out of frame or online until the last third of the movie. Affable and good-looking, Shulman has the perfect combination of confidence and self-consciousness about his online entanglements. In one particularly embarrassing scene, he reads his and Megan’s illicit text conversation aloud to his brother, which ultimately causes him to hide under his comforter and the audience to squirm in their seats. This scene, along with many others, highlights the uncomfortable divide between textual communication and the actual spoken word, and reminds the viewer how awkward solely technological relationships can become.
Despite the implicit critique of the Internet identity complex, “Catfish” also acknowledges the importance of the Internet as a canvas for re-invention, and the mixed joy and sadness one can find in escaping from everyday drudgery. The film’s twist is a poignant reminder that Facebook can be the setting for a second life, if real life ever becomes too disappointing to handle.
While some viewers doubt that “Catfish” is actually as ‘real’ as it claims to be, the narrative that emerges is so vivid that even if the scenario were scripted it would still resonate. And since the whole film is about the blurry boundaries between reality and fiction, the potentially dubious degree of authenticity ultimately doesn’t harm the film. Scripted or not, “Catfish” succeeds in pointing out the often-gaping divides between who we actually are and who we wish we were, and how the Internet can bridge those divides in dangerously seductive ways.