"Catfish" really hooks us, despite deceptive hype

Catfish (2010)
86 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

The first rule of "Catfish" is – you do not talk about "Catfish." The marketing campaign of this timely, fascinating, thought-provoking documentary is so deceptively savvy that it's going to mislead and probably disappoint those hoping for a backwoods bloodbath. Based on the open-ended trailer and spoiler-free hype (“Don't let anyone tell you what it is.”), you don't know what to expect, but it's not another "Paranormal Activity" or a “Hitchcock-had-it-been-directed-by-Hitchcock” thriller (as IMDB.com has falsely categorized it as), so let's review it for what it is rather than bash it for what it isn't. 

Yaniv (or Nev) Schulman is a 24-year-old photographer living in New York City. He strikes up an innocuous, long-distance friendship with 8-year-old Abby, who saw one of his photographs in her local Michigan paper, made a painting of it and had her mom, Angela, ship it to him. Soon a Facebook and phone relationship develops not only with Angela and Abby but also with Abby's older half-sister, Megan, a gorgeous, multi-talented model type. This Facebook family keeps sending Nev packages of paintings, as his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost keep shooting it for a movie. He's so flattered by the attention and becomes so interested in the family and Megan, especially, that he decides to make a road trip—with his brother and buddy and camera—to see her. Spoiling more would be criminal. 

Shot on consumer-grade video, "Catfish" hooks us from the start; it's very funny and helps that Nev is such an interesting, good-looking guy with a bright, ready smile that we can't help watch to see where this experiment of gullibility and pitying goes. This riveting film turns out to really ramp up the suspense, uneasiess, and mystery as we keep holding our breath and have no idea where it's going to go, especially when it becomes a rather creepy but heartbreaking and hopeful story and a food-for-thought cautionary tale for our times of Facebook profiles, Google Maps, and cell phones. Ignore the publicity and run, don't walk, to see "Catfish."