By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Facebook must be blushing this week about the release of two dissimilar films focused on the darker side of all those glowing computer screens.
Between The Social Network and the documentary Catfish, you have to think that some of Facebook's 500 million members will think twice about logging on.
Catfish is a true and subtly terrifying story about Facebook friendships that is almost too incredible to believe. The Social Network is a fictionalized account of unsavory truth that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg hopes you won't believe.
Together they create a portrait of a phenomenon run amok, where image is everything and sometimes bogus. You can support the posers in charge by buying in, and encourage posing users through sheer gullibility. This can't be what Internet creators had in mind.
The clearer warning comes from Catfish, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, with Schulman's affable brother Nev as "star." The documentary begins as a chronicle of the Internet's strength, how it brings people together despite their distances apart. Then it gradually exposes the weaknesses with a story that must be spoiled (but only to a point) for discussion's sake. Stop reading now if that isn't cool with you.
Nev is a New York photographer contacted by an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby, requesting permission to make a painting of one of his photos. As the relationship continues, she sends more paintings. Abby has talent, judging from online examples and samples mailed to Nev. Abby's mother Angela, her older sister Megan and other relatives thank Nev on his Facebook page for being so supportive.
For nearly 9 months, Nev becomes an honorary member of their extended family, getting all the details of their daily lives. Phone calls are exchanged but Abby is never around to talk, only text. She's busy opening an art gallery, selling her works for thousands of dollars. Megan is available, though, and Nev develops strong romantic feelings for her, which she reciprocates online and over the phone.
Spoiler alert (or maybe not by now): Everything Nev believes to be true about this family is a lie, a deception so vast that Catfish may make you wonder if that's really Mom liking you on Facebook. The tangled web unravels, making Nev and the filmmakers curious enough to travel to Michigan and confront... who?
There is much more to be discovered in Catfish that won't be revealed here. What Nev discovers in Michigan is almost what you expect but not quite, in an even more unsettling way. The reasons for deceiving Nev are at once terrifying and pitiful; at the conclusion of Catfish, you wish it were a Joaquin Phoenix hoax but it isn't. At least I never detected that.
The title is more than the "hook, line and sinker" reference it would seem to be. "Catfish" is explained in the final minute by someone using it as a parable of wisdom, who is actually duped like everyone else. Catfish is a chilling reminder that we're not as smart as we think we are, no matter how many gigabytes our PCs and Macs hold.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.