Catfish | Indie Mystery | rated PG-13 (A,L) | 1:34 mins

When photographer Nev develops an online friendship of professional interest with Abbey, an 8-year-old whose talent with a paintbrush has made her something of a local celebrity, his aspiring filmmaker brother, Ariel, and friend Hank decide it would make a good documentary subject. Nev gets to know Abbey’s entire family, who he calls his “Facebook Family” which includes mom Angela and older daughter Megan. When Megan and Nev develop an intense long distance attraction that becomes too much to bear, the three guys hit the road to meet Megan in person. But they don’t even get there before the reality of Nev’s Facebook Family starts to unravel and nothing appears to be what it seems.

Even though every faux documentary in the past 10 years has been compared to The Blair Witch Project, Catfish is a movie that kind of warrents it. Interest in the movie is based entirely on a campaign of internet buzz – an entirely misleading campaign at that. Catfish is not the thriller images of Nev peering through a dark garage window would lead us to believe. Expecting a big shocking horror twist will leave you feeling dissapointed. It did me. Once the movie’s reality is revealed it looses all of it’s built up intensity, dragging in the third act long after it’s hit the climax and made the point. But dissapointment does not make a movie bad. Looking past the marketing to the movie’s real life beyond the box office, is it good, entertaining, compelling? And the answer is yes. To all of these. Curiosity does not quite kill the Catfish.

It’s a hoax. But it’s modest existance as an indie flick makes it an entirely convincing pseudo-documentary. Instead of a Hollywood product with recognizable stars and contrived story turns pretending to be a documentary (The Last Exorcism, Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield). Part of what makes it potentially dissapointing as a thriller is what makes it such a good and realistic character drama – it doesn’t reach out into the absurd or contrive some purely cinematic idea that comes in and spoils the illusion. Everything in it could feasibly happen but is just odd enough to justify telling this story. It is less concerned with twists, even the final reveal isn’t revealed with a “ta-da” as our characters are savvy enough to figure it out beforehand, and more with exploring the culture of online relationships.

This is the other Facebook movie, more about Facebook than David Fincher’s terrific The Social Network, which could, just as well be about any McGuffin. Catfish is the movie by and for the Facebook/Myspace generation. It speaks in the language of Google Maps, Pokes, Likes, Wall Posts, Texting, Sexting, YouTube videos and photo tags. We’ve all heard or assumed that social networking sites can be a annonymous playground for stalkers and creeps, but no movie has quite explored this to date as well and as realistically as Catfish. Plus, and I won’t dare give it a way but there is something of a role reversal here to the traditional online stalker tale. The way the movie deconstructs how someone can pretend to be someone they aren’t online is intriguing and creative.

From the very beginning (with this and Scott Pilgrim Universal Pictures have been very generous with creative interpretations of their logo this year) the movie cleverly plays off of it’s internet theme using Google Earth as a 21st century version of Indiana Jones’ plane with the line behind it to show our group travelling across the country. It uses a GPS navigation to build the suspense when we are approaching meeting the family. It introduces us to the characters using their Facebook photo tags. In another movie it would all come off as eye-rolling and cheap. In this movie it fits perfectly into the movie’s motiff, a creative way for an indie movie about the internet to visually spice itself up. It gives Catfish a great look and a real personality.

Ultimately what makes the movie such an on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand mixed bag is an ending I can’t give away. There are things about it I really liked and things that I didn’t feel it went far enough with. The characters are fairly underwritten, or, I’m sorry the documentary doesn’t fully explore the lives of these real people. This leaves Nev and his friends as something of likeable enigmas. Why he would befriend and 8-year-old girl in the first place would have been a story in and of itself.

As it is rolling toward the solution to it’s mystery, Catfish is pretty intense. Ariel, I believe, describes it as they feel like they’re waiting for their SAT scores. Their excitement eminates from the screen. The movie can’t keep up that pace. But even as it starts to lean off the rails in the third act it is an entertaining journey. A story of dreams deferred, but maybe given new life by the internet. Worth a look.