Case Number 20433: Small Claims Court


Universal // 2010 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 3rd, 2011

The Charge

Don't let anyone tell you what it is.

The Case

The Internet is full of "spoiler alerts." Nearly every article about an upcoming or current movie has some bit of information that fans don't want to know before heading to the theater. As a reviewer and occasional podcaster, it's getting harder and harder to keep from breaking etiquette and ruining someone else's viewing experience. Tiring as it is to avoid a spoiler-related faux pas, though, certain movies are worth the effort. Catfish is one of those movies.

The first thing I heard about this documentary is that you shouldn't know anything about what happens before you watch it. I'm going to repeat that warning here. If you haven't seen this movie, don't read the rest of my review. Just know that it is a gripping story packed with twists, turns, and surprising humanity. It looks great on Blu-ray, but this kind of movie doesn't require a hi-def presentation to be enjoyed. It comes with a 25-minute interview with the filmmakers that answers some (but not all) of the questions you'll have after the movie is over. And that should be enough to send you skipping off to your retailer or rental service of choice.

For everyone else...SPOILER ALERT!

I'm not really going to spoil everything, but here's the basic rundown: Catfish begins when New York City photographer Nev Schulman receives a painting in the mail, based on one of his photographs -- the work of 8-year-old Michigan art prodigy Abby Pierce. Nev encourages the young painter, and develops an e-mail and Facebook relationship with Abby's family, including her mother, Angela, her brother, and her older sister, Megan. Before long, Nev and Megan's friendship develops into something more. They chat on the phone, send sexy text messages, and post photos on each other's Facebook walls. For Nev, it feels like the perfect relationship. Then he discovers that Megan might not be what she seems.

If you've seen the movie, you know what that discovery is, and how Nev's actions from that point onward drive the plot of Catfish. It's a taut mystery (though not nearly as sinister as the "thriller" the Blu-ray case promises) -- one that will keep you guessing well into the final act.

The story is so good, in fact, that some critics have accused Nev and the filmmakers (Nev's brother Ariel, and their friend Henry Joost) of making it up. In the bonus feature interview they insist that it's all true, and I believe them -- mostly because I've been online long enough to see how something like this could happen. Catfish is a byproduct of the bizarre give and take of this Internet-enabled world. In fact, it might be the most realistic movie about social networking of 2010.

Where some documentaries tell sweeping stories about political issues, Catfish is small in scope. It's pretty much just Nev's story from the time he begins his relationship with Abby and her artistic family to the end of his journey, less than a year later. Although it's easy to draw larger conclusions about where we are as a society, the filmmakers don't connect those dots. Considering how ripe the story is for our times, it's too bad they don't take things further. The closest they come to any kind of thesis statement is a story about catfish and cod that's told by a side character. Perhaps the real takeaway from Catfish isn't that what happened to Nev could just as easily have happened to you or me; it's how hard it would be for most of us to show as much kindness and understanding as he did once he came face to face with the truth.

It may not seem necessary to watch a low-budget, largely handheld documentary like Catfish in hi-def, but the Blu-ray transfer is surprisingly good. Likewise, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is dynamic and spacious, delivering dialogue as clear as the original audio allows, while giving Mark Mothersbaugh's original score the right amount of "oomph."

There is only one bonus feature: a 25-minute interview with the filmmakers and Nev. They talk freely about their experiences making the movie, reflect on their mistakes and triumphs, and answer questions submitted by an unseen audience.

Catfish isn't the most insightful or important documentary of the year, but it is one of the most fun. It would be easy to dismiss it as relying too heavily on twists and turns, but as countless Hollywood popcorn flicks have shown, it takes more than thrills to make a great movie. Catfish works because it turns a real-life mystery into a moving study of loneliness, forgiveness, and the universal desire for human contact.

The Verdict

I'm not sure of much after watching Catfish, but I'm sure it's not guilty!

Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile
Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)

* English (SDH)
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Distinguishing Marks
* Interview

* IMDb

* Cinema Verdict Review