If you have seen “Catfish” and are ready for the rest of my review, here it is:
In the early days of the World Wide Web, a widely-circulated New Yorker cartoon showed a dog sitting up before a computer, paws on the keyboard. The caption read, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” We all know too well the stories about people who pretend to be something or someone they are not online. Nev knows that the beautiful young woman whose picture he hopefully Photoshops with his own may not be exactly what she says. He jokes that it could be a guy. But he gets caught up despite himself. When he and the film-makers go to Michigan, they are open to adventure. They know that Megan may not be what they expect. But what they find is something they could never have imagined.
Nev believes he is in touch with an entire community of people. It turns out he is in touch with one person, Angela. She is in reality the mother of Abby, the little girl, and Megan, the 19-year-old, and all of the people Nev has “friended” are real people. But they are not on Facebook. Angela has created all of the Facebook pages and personas — and kept two cell phones, one to answer as herself, one to answer as Megan. All of them have names and other identifying characteristics of the real people and places and events in Angela’s life, but in a much more fundamental way, all of them are aspects of Angela herself. The movie’s most powerful moments are when we realize that Angela was not trying to deceive Nev as much as she was trying to present a self that felt more authentic to her than the life she was actually leading. She is like both Cyrano de Bergerac and the handsome-but-blank soldier whose love letters he penned.
At first, Angela tries to keep the fantasy alive. But with surprising gentleness, Nev encourages her to confess. She had once dreamed of being an artist but she was living in a remote part of Michigan, caring for two profoundly disabled teenage step-sons. Like many of us, Angela looked around at her life, very far from what she had hoped for and felt that it wasn’t who she really was. And so, like a novelist or screenwriter, she imagined another world. For a little while, it felt more real to her and to Nev than what they were living. She longed for Nev’s life in the midst of the cultural opportunities of New York. He longed for the bucolic pleasures of the country. They both longed for someone to love and be loved by. And for a moment, they found it, or what felt like it anyway.
Angela often ends her sentences with a “so…..,” not ready to finish the thought, not willing to see where it leads, but not able to end where it is. It is telling that her paintings, which mean so much to her, are based on photographs. Just as she amplifies and embroiders and expands on the images of what really exists in her artwork, she took the details of her life and made them prettier. But as Nev cannot find it in his heart to be angry or feel badly deceived, we, too, respond to her need to spend a few hours a day as the person she felt she was meant to be. It is moving to see his spirit expand to recognize that it was not Angela’s lies he was drawn to, but her truth. And at the end, when for the first time we understand the meaning of the film’s title, and then we see where Nev’s relationship with Angela is today, we can feel our own spirits expanding, and rising, to greater understanding and forgiveness.