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Catfish: A fanfare for Facebook fakery

This shit just got real. Or did it?

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Film review - contains spoilers Facebook is brimful of hot girls who are usually neither of those things: scammers, hustlers and freelance scumbags who don lovely online masks to get close to you and take you for all you're worth, or if you're lucky, just make you look really stupid. Not all of the masks hide your standard con-people, however – some of them are the finely-crafted work of lonely fantasists who might gain access not to your bank account, but to your head, your heart and your life.

Catfish is a documentary about a Facebook-based relationship that isn't what it appears to be, which may not itself be what it appears to be. If the makers had wanted to go for a less enigmatic title, and if Streep and Baldwin hadn't got there first, they could have done worse than It's Complicated.

(For those for whom the element of surprise is everything, although we really think there's more to life (and film) than that, here's an extended spoiler warning – this review contains quite a number of things that happen in the film which you may not want to know before seeing it, although it is so extraordinarily surprise-ful that we can't spoil the half of it.)

A couple of years ago, 24-year-old New York photographer Nev Schulman struck up a Facebook friendship with eight-year-old Michigan girl Abby, who had sent him a painting of one of his own photographs. He soon became friendly with Abby's mother Angela, and as the contact increased and the paintings kept coming, Nev's brother Ariel and his mate Henry Joost started filming to document the internet-based friendship. Then Nev was friended by Abby's 19-year-old half-sister Megan and a bunch of her mates, and things got a lot more interesting.

Catfish is immediately established as a documentary about right now – the process of becoming friends with people on Facebook, and then friends with their friends, the exchanging of messages and the tagging of pictures bounces across the screen in a swift clicky-dance of pixellated interaction. It's more graceful and less irritating than you'd think. It's only online nattering, but as the messages heap up and the pictures proliferate, the slow build of emotional investment is as plain to see on screen as it would be in any romantic drama.

As you watch Nev – preposterously good-looking, well-adjusted, but a little too trusting – get to know these people, the foreboding rumbles audibly. When Nev breezily says: "She seems normal", the rumble grows; when he twigs that the gorgeous Megan isn't the talented singer she claims to be, it swells to an Inception-grade trombone-parp.

Soon the three young guys, disturbed but giddy, are dismantling an impressive edifice of untruths with the help of the very tools that built it. The vertiginous swooping from the outer reaches of Google Earth to an enigmatic smudge of a human figure in a front yard is brilliantly dramatic – not least because it illustrates how the stalked can become the stalker – and the internet willingly feeds the filmmakers the information and clues they need to find the truth. They start to lie and construct in turn, fabricating to get the facts – faking to the fakers. They find, and gently ambush, Angela at her home in Michigan, but the whole truth is still many miles away.

The documentary is often hilarious, with a sheepish Nev reading out the "juicy stuff" he and Megan texted to each other, even as he remains in the dark as to who Megan really is. You start to doubt everything, and you're often rewarded as another falsehood satisfyingly bites the dust. And then it becomes rather less hilarious. Remove the scampering enthusiasm and intrigue, chip away the many layers of finely-worked horseshit, and this is a modern human tragedy.

It should show you that anyone can come to believe things that are false, and sneering at the credulous is often misplaced – Nev is young, but he's not the kind of hopelessly naive dope who buys magic beans. "I wasn't fooled," says Nev, reasonably, "They just told me things I didn't care to question." Why would you not take people at face value, within reason, even when you've only met them online and spoken to them on the phone?

Just as most conspiracy theories would require a cast of thousands of co-ordinated evil geniuses to hold any water at all, reflexively attributing quirks of human behaviour and twists and turns of relationships to the machinations of a puppet-master is absurd and paranoid. Angela turns out to be a brilliant one, an essentially benign manipulator driven by desperation for a sense of fulfilment rather than by a desire for the power that comes from mastering the dark art of headfuckery. Nev trusts in Angela and Abby and Megan, not realising that Angela has snapped Occam's Razor into several pieces.

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