One of the year’s most bizarrely fascinating documentaries, Sundance sensation Catfish, is being ill-served by its misleading trailer, which implies a horrific, Blair Witch-style nightmare that the film itself—to its ultimate if somewhat inadvertent credit—doesn’t remotely deliver. Still, you’re better off knowing as little as possible in advance. Certainly, co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost had no idea where they’d end up when they began documenting the online flirtation between Ariel’s brother Nev and a 19-year-old knockout living hundreds of miles away, even as it became increasingly apparent that certain aspects of this new paramour’s identity didn’t quite add up.
Truth is, it’s pretty easy to guess what the three will find when they decide to drive out to Michigan and knock on the young lady’s door. But the movie’s real twist, and its considerable emotional power, lies in the unexpectedly complex and multifaceted personality that subsequently emerges and which the filmmakers don’t seem entirely equipped to handle or engage. Catfish is never less than compelling, and it has plenty to say about social networking as a kind of performance art, but it abruptly concludes at the point at which it becomes most powerful. Only when the mystery is solved does the true mystery begin.