Many movies over last ten years have engaged with the dangers of online communication, but Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s “Catfish” delivers the definitive narrative of social networking gone awry to cap off the decade. By turns hilarious, unsettling and sad, the documentary engages with the rampant instability of new media. The filmmakers focus on Schulman’s brother, Nev, a 24-year-old New York photographer whose relationship with an eight-year-old painter named Abby via Facebook leads to more questions than answers about her identity. Ostensibly a child prodigy, Abby sends Nev gorgeously painted renditions of his own photographs. As their relationship grows, Nev begins to develop remote connections with other members of Abby’s family — particularly her older sister, with whom he cultivates a hilariously puerile digital love affair. For hopeless romantics, the Internet apparently endangers swift intellectual regression.
I’ll stop the synopsis there. While “Catfish” takes a sensationally engaging twist within the first fifteen minutes, leading to a bizarre and completely unpredictable mystery that practically defies conventional expectations of nonfiction cinema, part of the movie’s underlying appeal comes from its progression of enigmas. To avoid ruining “Catfish,” it strikes me as appropriate to pull a “Psycho” and not reveal the ending — nor the alluring series of set-ups that take it there. Needless to say, the movie takes the form of a knowingly obtrusive meta-narrative, in which we see the directors and their subject on camera discussing the nature of their project. Nevertheless, given the apparent authenticity of each onscreen development, such conversations help solidify the central themes coursing through each scene.
In essence, this trio of twentysomething art geeks reflect the generation most attuned to the emerging media featured in the movie. Nev jabbers on Gchat, taps away on his iPhone screen and approves Facebook requests as if he had done so since the crib. His comprehension of certain communicative boundaries — or their absence — provide a series of moral queries that appear to unfold in a linear fashion. Where many first-person movies in recent years have struggled under the weight of their creators’ narcissism, in this case narcissism is part of the point. It’s purely a Zeitgeist experience: Using cheap digital cameras, the directors seemingly record everything, while Nev remains virtually wired to the online realm — and noticeably shaken when it betrays him.
Steeped in the language of twenty-first century technology, “Catfish” begins with sensational cinematic momentum, using Facebook photos, YouTube, Google maps and other digital utilities to bring viewers into the technology at the core of their saga. In another context, these might seem like simple props. However, because the implied audiences more or less understands new media through their own encounters with it, “Catfish” develops into a cautionary fable for the future of civilized connectivity.