EDITORS NOTE: This review was originally published during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
While critical distance is commonly expected in mainstream journalism, the “conflict of interest” clause is pretty much beside the point in the personally entwining world of documentary. The filmmaker and the filmed share the most intimate of rituals in a collaborative project both hope will bring good fortune. Without some conflict, it seems, there is no interest, which may be why the documentary filmmaker’s Moment of Doubt is becoming a fairly standard plot point. At times one could chart the intensity of an audience’s belief in a filmmaker’s conclusions as directly proportional to how much skepticism the filmmaker develops for his or her subjects in the course of their relationship.
Taking a leaf from “Capturing the Friedmans,” “My Kid Could Paint That” invites its audience into the home of a family to judge whether a 4-year-old artist is a prodigy, or a hoax. Like “Friedmans,” which welded together a family portrait with essayistic takes on ’80s sexual hysteria, “My Kid” marries its portraiture and investigation to an essay on art. Unlike “Friedmans,” the filmmaker will not really bend the stick back toward his subjects, but instead offer audiences an insider’s criticisms of his own project, approach, and conclusions as an act of intellectual generosity.
With key commentary from the best of talking heads – from Elizabeth Cohen, the well spoken local reporter who broke the story, to New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who put the story in perspective – it builds on the question implied by its title. If a “kid” could truly paint a Pollock, in this case a 4-year-old who could be at home on a Gerber label, is a Pollock really worth that much? That question about art, however, leads to another about ethics: If a kid’s Pollock was actually created by an adult, is the adult more fraudulent than the too-easily replicable modern art? And that ethical question – which finally sends the director’s sympathies away from his subjects — leads to yet another about documentary filmmaking itself: Whose story is it, anyway?
Director Amir Bar-Lev does an excellent job developing his characters, timing his revelations, and managing his second-guesses. He understands we have to first love, or at least open up to, this family (who’s described as Gap-ad beautiful by its gallery rep) before we can begin to care about the conflict later. He cleverly peppers the innocent-portraiture section of the film with all the facts he’ll later use to damn the family after “60 Minutes II” raises questions about who, really, is making the art. (The parents, we’ve learned, work opposite shifts – one in a dental office, the other at a Frito-Lay factory – so the articulate, caring mother may not, in fact, realize what her mate’s been up to at the easel.)
Though insightful, one can’t help but wonder how seriously Bar-Lev takes his late-in-the-game self-reflections. The weakness in the story comes from the fact that this art fraud, if that’s what it indeed is, is a somewhat victimless crime. The price? Clueless collectors who drive off in tasteless, gas-guzzling Hummers are minus a little pocket change and a few grand illusions. Cost to a family, who, for the umpteenth time has lost a platform for proving its innocence? Priceless.