The element of surprise is vital to good storytelling, but seems harder and harder to come by in the cinema of the early 21st century. We’ve become accustomed to movie trailers and commercials that consistently and shamelessly divulge all the good bits, and even major plot twists before we even buy a ticket, throw it on our Netflix queue, or illegally download it. (God forbid!)

No wonder file sharing and online movie streaming is some common nowadays. Is this lack of respect for the movie business our global culture’s subconscious response to the industry’s pre-spoilage of their high price, and often low quality product? Why pay if they can’t even keep a friggin’ secret?

That’s why walking into a movie blind can be so rewarding. Especially if you just catch a glimpse of a Rotten Tomato or Metacritic score before heading to the theatre — nothing more, nothing less. Not even a glance at an alluring HD trailer. That’s exactly what the documentary filmmakers behind Catfish wish of their potential audience. Not that skimming over a synopsis will derail the magic, but why take that risk (besides putting your hefty ten bucks on the line). OK, take a little risk, and read ahead!

Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost focus several digital cameras on Ariel’s brother Nev. The trio work as a film crew for a traveling dance company. All are somewhere in their 20s, all handsome, talented, savvy New Yorkers.

Nev, certainly the most striking of bunch, has been embroiled in an electronic romance for nearly a year with Megan – a lovely model, photographer, and musician from rural Michigan. It all started on Facebook, where Nev learned that an 8-year-old child art prodigy named Abby had created a painted of one of his photographs. Impressed, he decides to take up a role of long distance mentor/muse to the girl, sending more photos of dancers from his company for Abby to paint. This Facebook connection leads to an e-friendship with both Abby’s attractive mother, Angela, and Abby’s striking older half-sister, Megan.

Connecting through phone calls, text, and Facebook messages, Nev develops a strong affinity for this talented family from a flyover state. He’s determined to meet this fantastic family, and finally connect with his long distance love, Megan, whom he’s bonded with through thousands of text messages and hours of phone calls. But in a hotel room in the midst of a Midwest dance tour, with cameras playfully fixed on Nev as he instant messages with Megan, an inconsistency appears. The adventure begins.

Catfish‘s tagline is succinct and perfect: “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” It’s this sense of mystery that the filmmakers hope will entice viewers, and provoke a word of mouth campaign with the opposite effect of 1992’s The Crying Game, where it was all about the spoilage.

With that in mind, here’s all that needs to be said: Catfish is fascinating, hilarious, suspenseful, and ultimately devastating. It’s a mystery that unravels before the bewildered filmmakers, and turns into a semi-exploitative exposé that straddles the line of irresistible and irresponsible. There it is. You’ve been warned.

Steve Swanson


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