"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Friday, January 4, 2013


Catfish is a documentary, but not the talking-heads kind.  It's a romance.

I don't think I've ever felt such giddy excitement watching a movie before.  One of the filmmakers says at one point, "It's like we're just about to open our SAT scores."  Exactly.  This film could have gone horribly wrong, and the reason it didn't is because there isn't a mean-spirited person in the bunch.

Nev, a 23-year-old photographer, gets a painting of one of his published photos from 8-year-old Abby, and he e-mails her mother to thank her, and then he gradually falls in love with Abby's 19-year-old sister, Megan over eight months of online conversations.  Finally he decides to take a road trip to see the whole family.  Nev's brother, Ariel, and friend, Henry, think it all makes for a good movie, and they were right.

This movie is all about reality and duplicity and honesty and loneliness.  I don't watch reality TV shows much, but from what I've seen, they're contrived and scripted - setting people up against one another to create an interesting conflict for the viewers.  This film is a mystery, so nastiness isn't necessary to keep us watching.  In a very minor early scene, Nev is talking with his brother and casually puts his hands down the front of his pants as they chat.   That's not something people in documentaries typically do, and it nicely stages him as an open and authentic kind of guy.

The film is also about falling in love long-distance.  At one point Nev is in bed, with his retainer in, reading intimate texts between him and Megan to Ariel and Henry, and he gets embarrassed by it all and finishes reading hiding under a blanket.  Nothing is edited from a text conversation the way it would be in a retelling of an in-person dialogue.  Nev also photoshops their pictures together.  He's 23, but he's acting like a little kid because he's in love.  Love can make the most mature, reasonable, professional adult act like a total moron.  Ebert called him naive, but maybe he's been married too long to remember how overpowering that feeling can be.  We see it in the paper all the time, and we laugh or are shocked at the antics of people in the throws, yet we really shouldn't be.  That could be us!

A lesser person would be angry enough to want to cause some harm to the woman who played with his  heart so thoroughly.  Nev doesn't take so much as a footstep in that direction.  For the kindness in it, and the simple provocative nature of the story reveal, and the fact that they were brave and crazy enough to go to Megan's place in the middle of the night, I give it an A-.

***  SPOILERS *** (Go see it before you read the rest - really! - It's on Netflix)

Okay, in case you haven't guessed, Catfish is a romance between Nev and a woman who doesn't actually exist.

There's a whole other story going on here.  But it really ruins the suspense of the film to know about it in advance.  You've been warned.

Abby's mom, Angela, is in her 40s and starting to feel like she hasn't achieved any of her dreams.  She lives for other people - her husband and kids.  She paints beautifully (it's telling that she's watermarked all her photos on her site), but I imagine she felt insecure about her artwork when she decided to tell Nev it was all done by her 8-year-old daughter.  It makes it that much more impressive if it's done by a child.  Angela's got a complex fantasy life going that seems to help her cope with a demanding home life.  It appears she has an estranged older daughter somewhere named Megan whom Abby hasn't seen "in so long she doesn't know what she looks like," and she recently left her job to spend her days caring for her two disabled step-sons (one appears severely disabled) and Abby.  That's a hard road to travel.  But, unlike the fantasy lives of many frustrated and lonely moms coping with caring for kids all day, her fantasy life seeped into other people's real lives when she sent Nev her paintings and pretended to be a 19-year-old woman falling for Nev with a model's photo in "Megan's" profile box on facebook.  I think the "falling for" part was all too real.

Since a key point in the film is the problem with misappropriating information, it's ironic that the film was sued for using music without permission, and that at Sundance, they were grilled on the reality of what they actually filmed.  We never really know another person completely; we just trust that people feel and think the way they say they do and that they're not putting on an act.  Trust is generally a good thing, but technology has taken us to a place where we're even further removed from what little grasp we ever had on reality.

The film skirts the borders of being about mental illness.  Even after the big coming clean in the movie, Angela continued to try to talk to Nev as Megan.  Nev says he's empathetic, and he stays in contact with her because he used to have problems telling the truth as a kid.  I think that's a whole different ballpark!   I also think it's great that they stay in touch and that she's getting counselling.  Obsessions can be disabling.

Yet it's funny how obsessed we can be with knowing the whole truth.  I like a nice story, and I'm okay if a few things were embellished here and there.  I'm curious about some details, but this film has brought about a cult of people searching online and in public records for information about all these people.  They want to know the absolute truth, and they'll stop at nothing to find it.  Some in the comments here wonder why Nev didn't he just read Angela's blog where she wrote about giving Megan up.  Maybe because the blog started in 2010 - a little late for a film released in 2010 and obviously filmed years earlier.  Another site explains why the film likely isn't a hoax.  This obsession is curious.  The film shows us a very positive way to react to a difficult situation.  Even if it's all contrived (which I doubt), it's still a good movie.  If it is fake, then Nev, Angela, and Abby are amazing actors.

Finally, and most obviously, the movie is also a huge cautionary tale about the dangers of the internet.  There's some serious collateral damage from all this: Aimee Gozales was the woman whose face Angela used to portray Megan.  The filmmakers told the story to her on film.  She seemed to take it beautifully, but now checks online regularly to see if anyone else has stolen her identity.  Stealing credit card information is one thing.  Angela stole Aimee's face.

Be careful out there, kids!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Movies About Teenagers Coping With Life

Kindness slays me.  I can sit stone-faced while people are slaughtered and abused and love dies and all hope is lost, but one act of kindness and I'm a puddle on the floor.

I watched two movies that deal with a similar theme of coping - specifically, New York teens dealing with angst.  One was nasty, the other nice.

First I watched Margaret.  It got mixed reviews, but if people like it, they generally think it's a masterpiece - an operatic film with huge messages for the world.  I found it intriguing, but annoying.

It's got an amazing cast: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, and Mark Ruffalo in the first unlikable character I've seen him play.  Paquin plays Lisa, a 17-year-old who distracted a bus driver who ran a red light and killed a pedestrian which prompted a lawsuit.  Lisa held the dying woman's hand and talked to her as she bled out.  The rest of the movie is about her trying to cope with this ordeal, the guilt she feels for the part she played in the accident, all by herself.  She keeps insisting her mom's not there for her, even though mom keeps asking to help.  Lisa's stubborn and arrogant and wavers between loving the drama and being completely traumatized by it.  The portrayal of a teen in crisis is very realistic.  She's just on the brink of getting that the whole world isn't about her, so she's scrambling relentlessly to draw attention to herself at every turn.

But there's a larger message that some reviewers get very excited about.  In one of her classes - some kind of amazing debating class with two teachers - arguments centre around 9/11, the Israeli invasion of Palestine, the Iraq and Afghanistan invasion, and whether or not the America government is a terrorist organization.  The journey Lisa takes through all her crap is apparently mirroring the journey America is taking to get over itself.  As if.

The problem I had with the film, is that Lisa is too unlikable for me to care about her.  She's realistic, but I'd like to avoid her for now until she grows up a bit.  There's just a brief moment at the end where we get the idea that she's figuring it out, but it's too little to make up for having to watch her drama unfold for hours.
This is a C+ for me.

The nice movie about coping is It's Kind of a Funny Story.  It's a feel-good movie about mental illness.  It follows Craig, a 16-year-old who came close to jumping off a bridge, but walked into the local hospital instead.  He didn't have a major traumatic event like Lisa, just the daily grind of more pressures than he could handle.

There are a few issues with the reality of the set-up:  The psychiatric wing of the hospital has a rule that if you ask to be admitted voluntarily, you have to stay for five days no matter what, but legally they can only detain a voluntary patient for up to 24 hours - but then there'd be no movie.  The patients regularly escape the wing for fun and games elsewhere in the building - there seems to be no security personnel at all. Visitors drop in whenever they feel like it - night or day.  Patients can call anyone they want at any time.   They take away patients' belts and shoelaces, but not the drawstrings in their sweatshirts....  But this isn't a documentary (although some people will come away thinking this is what it's really like).  And it's no Girl, Interrupted.  It's much much lighter, yet no less watchable.  

The film reminded me of a book, The Bear's Embrace, about a woman with PTSD who spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.  She said that what really helped her was the other patients' total belief in her experiences and acceptance of her rather than rote sessions with the doctors.  This film shows a similar camaraderie and acceptance of one another juxtaposed with visitors calling the patients weird or yelling at them for not being able to get their shit together.  It's a wonder more of us aren't having issues with life.

Over his five days, Craig grows up and recognizes that he should be grateful for all he has.  The main reason this movie is preferable to Margaret is that we get to actually see Craig's character development instead of just hoping it gets better after the film ends.  He becomes more other-centered and starts noticing the beauty in the world.   We're rewarded for watching him slog through depression a bit (a really little bit).

I like the film because it reminds us that lots of people are walking around depressed, and that it can really help to try to find ways to help others and/or to try to find some beauty in the world - anything to get outside yourself.  Friends can be great too, but that can be hit and miss.

I'll give it a solid B.