In 2010, film directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost decided to produce a documentary about a friendship that developed between photographer Nev Schulman, and an eight-year-old painter named Abby. After seeing some of Nev's photographic work online, Abby gets in touch with him and sends him her own painting of his photo. These two people connect and become friends, if only from a distance.
After a while Nev also starts talking to Abby's mother, Angela, who is grateful that he has taken this artistic interest in her daughter. He then gets to meet her other children, albeit online – her son and her older daughter, Megan, who is the same age as Nev. Megan is an attractive young musician, and she and Nev have an instant rapport. They start to write to each other, send each other songs and photos, until the friendship grows into a mutual attraction.
Throughout the movie it is clear that the relationship with Megan means a great deal to Nev and that he wants to take things further. But how do you take a relationship with someone you've never met to the next level?
From an observer's point of view, Nev doesn't seem unhappy in the film. It doesn't look like he is looking for something to help him to escape from his reality. He seems like a confident, well adjusted person. Megan doesn't seem unhappy either and as far as Nev can tell, there doesn't seem to be an ulterior motive for her friendship. He sees no need to be wary, and so he lets Megan into his life and has his brother and friend document the development of the relationship.
Then something suddenly changes. A inconsistency in something Megan says causes Nev to question her integrity, if not her entire existence. Disturbed by what he now sees as lies and evasiveness, Nev feels compelled to find out the truth. The deeper he looks, the more determined he becomes to untangle the web of lies that have, at this point, begun to consume his world.
Worlds collide (spoilers ahead)
Just who is Megan, really? We find out that she does
exist, but isn't the woman Nev has been communicating with. We discover that the little girl, Abby, is real but that she isn't the artist Nev thought she was. We learn that the mother of these two girls created a whole new world for herself built on lies and half truths. We discover that she is caught up in a dream that she lives online to escape the real world she lives in. The depth of tragedy during the scene in which Nev goes to her house and confronts her is both fascinating and terrible to watch.
The great sadness here is that a person can be filled with so much regret and so unfulfilled in life that they construct a virtual one because theirs is so awful. In the end we discover that she is the artist, but that her failure to succeed with it herself has driven her to attribute the work to her young child.
She has created characters that were fragments of herself; someone she used to be and someone she still wants to be and has then pulled Nev into her fantasy, almost as an afterthought.
Some viewers may find the documentary amateurish with its raw, sometimes excessive footage, but to me it adds to the realism of the story and makes me feel part of this difficult, and ultimately sad, journey.
Catfish is available for hire on DVD and Blueray.