We should expect an epic, national-sized discussion when Catfish arrives in theaters, as it's destined to inspire a conversation that's been in the making for years, one we should've addressed awhile ago: the danger inherent in social networking.
Moreover, Catfish is also cautionary tale about trust and human nature and loneliness and...well, it's about all kinds of things, really. Getting too specific would spoil the whole thing, however, so you're going to have to suffer through some vague statements throughout the rest of this article. Trust me: it's for a good cause, as Rogue Pictures (and directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost) has put together the most timely, terrifying, compulsively-watchable documentary I think I've ever seen.
Before we go any further, let's all take a look at the "Catfish" trailer, just so I know we're all on the same page. Here 'tis:
Looks pretty damned interesting, doesn't it? Here's what you need to know about Catfish prior to seeing it: nothing. Well, next to nothing. Knowing what you've just seen in the trailer and what we'll be talking about in the rest of this article is perfectly fine— and spoiler-free— but anything beyond that would only be damaging your experience with the film. And, believe me, it's an experience: I don't recall the last time I sat in a theater as on-the-edge-of-their-seats and entranced as the Alamo Drafthouse theater I saw Catfish in last night. This is the kinda film that's so powerful, complete strangers were turning to one another during the film to mutter in disbelief, anger, sympathy, or shock (including me, who's completely opposed to A) talking during movies and B) speaking to the guy you're wrestling for control of the armrest with). Catfish will knock you flat on your ass, you just wait. In another review, I said that "Catfish will do for Facebook what Jaws did for swimming at the beach", which is both the greatest Pete Hammon quote never uttered and deadly accurate.
As you just saw in the trailer, Catfish tells the story of Nev, a twenty-something New Yorker who shares an office space with two documentarians. After Nev is contacted by an 8 year-old girl who's painted one of his photographs (which, of course, she found online), he begins an awkward relationship with the girl, then her mother, and— finally— the younger girl's older sister, Megan, who we see in Facebook profile pictures over and over again during the course of the film. The relationship advances, eventually covering 1500 emails, texts, phone calls, and postcards, until Nev decides that he'd like to meet this pseudo-girlfriend. That's when things take a turn, and even if you think you know where it's headed from the trailer you just watched, allow me to assure you that you most certainly don't.
It's difficult to address the film on the whole without revealing too much, but I think we'd be safe to say that Catfish is a film mostly about deception and our willingness to trust people that we meet online. That much is obvious from the trailers, anyway. How many of you have Facebook accounts? How many people do you know who are friends with someone they've never met on Facebook? How many of you have stories about meeting someone "IRL" and discovering that they weren't who they said they were online? This situation has played out in hundreds— if not thousands— of lives all over the world, but Catfish is the first film (and a documentary, to boot) that tackles the subject so completely, in such unblinkingly shocking detail: You don't just see the lead-up to Nev's discover(ies), you'll see the aftermath and "what it all means".
It's because the film captures such a specific, strange moment that many have already experienced— the point where you realize that an online stranger may not have been as upfront with you as you believed them to be— that it'll be so powerful to so many people. Coincidentally, I had lived through a situation almost precisely the same as Nev's in my younger days (I was 17 or 18), and that experience taught me to be very wary of anyone I encountered online. Some people, for no discernible reason, are just full of shit, and if you dare to enter emotional territory with such people, you'll find yourself in a very creepy, very infuriating, very sad place. That happened— for me, anyway— back in the early days of the internet, but it's taken much longer for many other people to realize that they probably shouldn't be adding new friends to their Facebook list all willy-nilly, without any prior knowledge of their new "friend" or their life.
I have a Facebook account, but it exists largely to link to articles I've written, announce dates for upcoming shows, and other business-related stuff I might wanna rub in people's faces. But I know a large number of people that use the site as a borderline substitute for human interaction, with many of them having hundreds of friends splashed over dozens of places they've never even been to. How, I wonder, do these people meet each other? Do they really just "Add" whoever pops up on their "You might also enjoy being friends with..." widget? What's with all this trust? Aren't we supposed to be the most cynical, suspicious, selfish generation that's ever lived? I'm not generally the dude at parties who's encouraging others to be cautious— for any reason— but in this arena I may as well be wearing a crossing guard's uniform.
The screening I caught featured the film's co-directors and star, Nev Schulman, in a Q&A led by Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles post-screening. Any doubts that one might have had about the "realness" of Catfish—which is surely going to be the most hotly-debated topic following the film's (hypothetical) wide release—were immediately dispelled, and they had some great stories about the making of the film and a few things that've happend post-film that made the experience invaluable. According to them, the DVD version will feature a slew of extra content that wasn't worked into the movie, and if what they said last night was true, that DVD's going to make for one helluva package deal when it arrives.
Shot entirely on hand-held digital cameras (and, towards the end, a camera with a little higher quality), the movie looks more professionally constructed than half of the big-budget Hollywood offerings I've seen this summer. These guys essentially took home video footage and edited one of the scariest movies I've seen in years: how amazing is that? There's no telling what these guys plan to do for their follow-up, but you can bet your sweet, sweet ass that I'll be keeping my ear to the ground for details.
One more thing, before you're free to decide whether or not you wanna go looking for spoilers online (and they're there, but I'm begging you: don't do it; you'll only kick yourself later when you realize that you've robbed yourself of an incredible in-theater experience): the film isn't a mockumentary. What you're seeing is real, make no mistake. You're going to be seeing a lot of people claiming that it's all staged, or that the film's filled with actors, or that it's all a hoax, but I can assure you—with the certainty that comes with having seen the film, which many of the naysayers and deniers don't possess—that it's the real deal. That only serves to make the film more terrifying, but it would certainly be less effective (though not completely worthless) were we to discover that it was all an elaborate hoax. Just trust the movie going into it, and you won't have your trust violated. Entering the film with an attitude of "Ppssh, it's prob'ly all bullshit" will distract from you getting sucked into Catfish as much as you're clearly meant to.
Although Rogue Pictures has picked up Catfish for distribution, there's no firm release date announced for the film. If I were Rogue Pictures, though, I'd handle this one much in the same way that Paramount Vantage handled "Paranormal Activity", and continue to show it off to large groups of people at random intervals until the buzz reached a nice, roiling boil. I saw the film last night, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. I imagine that the film will have the same effect on anyone else that sees it, particularly the internet-savvy audiences of the world. If Rogue Pictures were smart, they'd release this thing around Halloween, and spend the weeks between now and then hyping people up about what's truly the scariest film I've seen this year (I also saw The Last Exorcism last weekend, and while that film was fictional, it's telling that a documentary wiped the floor with it in the scares department...for a number of reasons).
I implore you, gentle readers of the world: when Catfish opens near you, make sure you're there on opening day. Bring some of your internet buddies, and make sure that you've handled all your Facebook-related business before you catch a screening; there's a good chance you'll be deleting your profile as soon as you get home.
Image credit: SlashFilm and Collider.
Scott Wampler is a standup comic, humor writer, entertainment blogger, and man of constant sorrow from Austin, TX. When he's not mainlining vodka tonics, he's contributing articles to a variety of entertainment websites— Chud.com, Collider.com, Gawker.com— and operates primarily as the National Comedy Examiner for Examiner.com, where he specializes in a form of entertainment reporting that can best be described as "frequent jokes made at Jay Leno's expense". If you feel like contacting Scott about anything—advice, naming your child, learning who your favorite character on Arrested Development should be—feel free to contact him here.