Everyone knows that dating over the internet can be a hazardous undertaking. Tales of lovelorn online souls burned by misleading or downright duplicitous suitors rank only behind porn and pop-up ads in their cyber-ubiquity. But the advent of Facebook that monolithic social network that recently surpassed Google as the most visited site in the world has substantially widened the pool of potential targets for aspiring romantic fraudsters. This is the unsettling notion that propels Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s fascinating new documentary Catfish. It begins as a chronicle of the relatively humdrum correspondence between Nev a 24-year-old New York photographer and an eight-year-old Michigan art prodigy named Abby. (Nev also happens to be Ariel’s brother.) But when the interaction moves from email to Facebook and Nev links up with Abby’s older half-sister Megan Faccio the film shifts its focus accordingly and its true dramatic potential begin to unfold.
Nev’s connection with Megan a part-time model and veritable renaissance woman — she’s a talented dancer as well as an accomplished singer-songwriter — is immediate and intense. When he isn’t flirting with her via instant messenger he spends hours on Facebook poring over her photos listening to her music and attempting to decipher cryptic “status updates” and messages posted on her “wall” by various friends. Late at night they exchange amorous text messages detailing all of the saucy things they hope to do in the event they actually consummate their long-distance affair. (Like her half-sister Megan lives in Michigan.) But their budding romance takes a sour turn when Nev begins to uncover subtle clues that Megan isn’t being entirely honest with him. As evidence of her deceit grows from a trickle into an avalanche a chafed Nev decides to travel to Megan’s Michigan home documentary crew in tow and confront her To Catch a Predator-style.
This is the point in Catfish where one feels tempted to start tapping the Bulls**t Button. Nev’s naiveté as well as that of the filmmakers feels more than a little disingenuous. It’s hard to believe that the trio of educated digitally savvy gents from New York a city accustomed to scams and scam artists of all types would fall so wholeheartedly for such a scenario. And Nev though geeky and neurotic and a tad hirsute appears plenty appealing enough to snag a flesh-and-blood mate in a city where Woody Allen is considered sexy. Their professed shock at their discovery is betrayed by a barely concealed glee over having stumbled upon a documentary subject considerably more intriguing than a second-grader who paints pretty pictures. We'll never know what their real suspicions were if any but it seems fairly obvious that they at least suspended their disbelief for the sake of compelling drama.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a staggeringly well-constructed scam. That the boys discover the girl isn’t what she seems when they find her Michigan is hardly earth-shattering; it’s the disparity between the real and the fake identities and the startling lengths to which the person behind the digital curtain goes to perpetuate the ruse that are Catfish’s real revelations. It would be criminal to spill any additional details but suffice it to say they’re enough to disturb and frighten anyone who uses Facebook with any regularity. Which is to say almost all of us.