Yaniv Schulman as Himself
Ariel Schulman as Himself
Henry Joost as Himself
Angela Pierce as herself
Abby Pierce as Herself

With the explosion of social media and the mainstreaming of virtual relationships it was inevitable, and maybe even necessary, that someone was going to try and document (in fiction or non) what that was actually like and how it effects us as human beings. Which brings us to “Catfish.”

Explaining the title means giving away more or less the plot and that is impossible to do without ruining the suspense of seeing it. In brief, when professional photographer Yaniv receives a painting in the mail from young prodigy Abby based on one of his photographs he feels compelled to seek her out, despite the fact she lives halfway across the country. It’s a process made all the easier by the new technologies designed to do just that – bridge distances and bring us together.

On the face of it, then, inventions like Facebook and YouTube and the like are good things, fostering greater communication between individuals and putting away once and for all barriers like geography that have historically separated cultures. It sounds like a good idea, taken to its logical conclusion. They’re tools for allowing us to get know each other better (more or less) by sharing more and more with each other, breaking down old social barriers. In theory.

On the other side of the coin the use of virtual communication provides a barrier of its own, one that may be even more pernicious, adding suspicion to ever new ‘friend’ – are they a real person or just some cunning (or not so cunning) simulacra?

As the months of communicating and receiving paintings from Abby wear on, Yaniv finds himself more and more drawn into her life, becoming friends with her mother Angela, learning about the family problems and arguments like he was just a friendly next-door neighbor. He even goes so far as to develop a relationship with Abby’s older sister, singer-songwriter Megan, despite the fact they have never met.

This all proves too much to resist for Yaniv’s brother and studio mate Ariel, a young filmmaker in his own right, and soon Ariel and his partner Henry are documenting every moment of Yaniv’s relationship, leading up to the group eventually traveling to Michigan in person to meet the amazing Abby and her family.

More than that can’t be said beyond the fact that “Catfish” will have you glued to your seat for every minute of its running time, particularly in its last 30 minutes. It reminds you constantly that the documentary, at its best, reminds us of the real drama that makes up human life.

“Catfish” is a perfect example of that, maybe too perfect. There’s no evidence to the contrary, but like Yaniv himself, we the audience are separated from the events by the barrier of the silver screen and there’s no telling what’s real and what’s not. If it’s real it’s affecting on a profoundly human level, and if not, it’s awfully clever. We may never know, but either way the point is worth making.

“Catfish” may be the first film to truly explore the reality of information age interpersonal relationships and whether or not that term is being made obsolete by the tools enabling it. There’s a certain amount of exploitation going on in the process – which may be unavoidable in anything dealing with the internet – but there’s a great deal of trust as well, whether it’s real or not. Check it out.