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The tag line for Catfish is, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” As a critic, such a command is maddening because description and summary are an important part of what I do. Still, I think it best to obey the tag line. Much of the movie’s success depends on the thrill of discovery, so an ordinary review could ruin the experience. Hell, I could describe the whole thing in a single sentence, maybe even a few words, but that would be doing a disservice to the remarkable documentary Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost constructed.

Over the course of several months, Ariel and Henry filmed Nev Schulman, Ariel’s brother who works in New York as a photographer. One day a photo of Nev’s attracts an unlikely fan. That’s all I say about what happens.

The key to the movie’s success is how the audience experiences the story alongside its creators. While they were filming, the directors had little idea of how it’d end, or even if they had a movie on their hands. Through improvisation and luck, there are fascinating revelations Henry and Ariel simply could not have planned (unless the whole thing is fake – more on that later).  There are tense moments that rival the best thriller, and funny moments that are quietly revealing. Catfish would never work if the three young men weren’t engaging, but Nev and the directors are funny and smart. They sound like friends of yours, particularly as they agonize over the meaning of a text message.

The camerawork is amateurish yet effective. Punctuated by close-ups of computer screens and cell phones, the first half hour looks like a well-edited youtube video about modern relationships. Only in the last third does the movie begin to resemble a traditional documentary. Adding an air of authenticity, the directors buy a better camera as soon as they have a better idea of what is happening to Nev. The purchased camera also marks a shift in tone.  Whereas the early scenes are fun and carefree, Catfish later becomes disturbing and melancholy. Now that it’s over, I’m deeply appreciative of Nev’s willingness to share something so personal (he appears visibly shaken in the final shots). And while there has never been a movie quite like this before, I’m sure there are men and women who have been in similar shoes.

Upon leaving the theater, my friend and I urgently discussed Catfish for over an hour. This rarely occurs, but then again, movies are rarely this risky or intimate. Much of the discussion was over whether the movie is “real.” There will never a wholly satisfying answer, so it’s best to conclude its authenticity doesn’t matter. The movie stirs real emotions, and the explanation of its title is a reminder of how best to judge its quality. I will say this, though: if the movie is a hoax, then there are scenes that are cruelly exploitative, and the directors  seem like nice guys.