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Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Opens Oct. 1.

While much of the vast information superhighway has twisted itself into pretzel shapes of confliction, adulation, and speculation for months over David Fincher’s unflattering portrait of Facebook’s founders, a much smaller, marginally less-buzzed-about movie just may be more essential viewing for the social-networking gen. Enter Catfish, a fest darling and an already-controversial (alleged) doc that pushes the what’s-real, what’s-not boundaries in the age of 24/7 electronic media saturation.

The movie’s ads have dabbled in William Castle-like hype—“don’t dare reveal the shock twist ending”—but there’s no boogeyman in the bushes, and the movie poses deeper questions than the average mystery, though it’s not clear if the makers really have any answers.

Most Catfish reviews thus far have been consumed with how much of what we see is authentic and what must been staged, but no discussion can exist without some sort of spoilers, as its very gradual storytelling pace is best served by knowing as little about the plot as possible. The rough outline: Early twentysomething photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, his brother Ariel, and filmmaker Henry Joost share a Manhattan production office working on docs about ballet and modern dance. Nev begins corresponding with an 8-year-old named Abby from Ishpeming, Mich.; she’s a little girl who paints impressive-for-her-age watercolors based on his published photos. Over months Nev also begins chatting with Abby’s sexy twenty-ish older sister Megan and their mom Angela. Captivated by Megan’s Facebook photos, Nev starts exchanging messages, endless texts, and occasional phone calls with her, which grow increasingly intense and romantic, all documented by ever-present cameras. Eventually curiosity takes over, especially when some of Megan’s details seem suspicious, and the guys decide to take an impromptu road trip to visit the family that so fascinates them. That things aren’t quite what they seem when they get there isn’t so much a surprise as a revelation, and from here the movie spins into fascinating and deeply discomforting territory.

Just as the stories Megan tells Nev begin to unravel, certain details of the movie’s last third appear to invalidate the beginning, the timeline becomes shaky, and it becomes clear that some of what we’ve seen must be re-creations or fabrications. There are also moments that feel faintly exploitative, involving some who don’t understand the power of the camera, and others who know it too well. The result is a movie that’s part documentary, part thriller, part romance, part therapy session, and intermittently fascinating and cringe-inducing.

Does it matter if every word or moment is spontaneous and honest? Like other recent questionable docs and hoaxes, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Still Here, Catfish speaks to the inner lives of cyber-age people, those fleeting dirty messages that feel so real, the instantaneous joy of a text message, and the consequence of making up your life as you go along.

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