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Catfish: A fanfare for Facebook fakery

This shit just got real. Or did it?

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Casey Affleck likes this

It's obvious by the end that Angela is the real victim of her own creative scheme, and only a serious brute could find no sympathy for her. Nev is miraculously gentle and considerate to the woman who deceived him and others who have cause to expect a lot more from her. He smiles his way through it all, but it becomes clear towards the end that he's shellshocked.

The film raises a lot of the old questions about online identity and safety and how vulnerable we are to anyone else with an internet connection, although its events are outlandishly unlikely. It's oddly reassuring to that end – if you questioned everything about everyone, you couldn't function as a social animal. Also, it ought to show you that not everyone who lies to you means you harm.

Of course, Catfish also raises questions about itself. Inevitably, there have been widespread and noisy mutterings about the validity of the doc itself. Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's actor-meltdown caper I'm Still Here, which was only revealed as a big put-on after a year or so of Phoenix acting mad in public and everyone involved swearing up and down it was for real, hasn't done the concept of telling the truth many favours. Much more of that malarkey, and all documentaries and factual programming may have been sucked into a cynicism black hole in which no insistence of honesty could survive.

This is a film about being duped – so how far does it take that? Is the whole thing a falsehood wrapped in a cinematic scam, puffed up into one big smug meta-comment on dupe-dom? It's produced by the people behind Capturing the Freidmans – another documentary that started off being about nothing in particular before something wildly extraordinary conveniently revealed itself.

That's before you even address the ethics of exposing Angela's antics – and her family – to the world. The film was made with her consent, and she has said that she supports it – in fact, she says that she got into all this hoping that a film was being made as events unfolded. But can you trust anything she says?

If it is a hoax, it's a preternaturally brilliant one – and overall, it has the ring of truth, even after it's spent an hour and a half kicking the fragile concept of that all around the room. It's about the mutability and malleability of reality, and the absolute truth of it all becomes almost irrelevant because it's impossible to reach. Of course people like Angela exist, and the internet has enabled them to pursue and enact fantasies – ensnaring others as they go – in ways that they couldn't easily have done before. There are still some things that you couldn't make up, and you might as well believe decency and honesty are still real – even when you're dealing with Facebook and filmmakers.

Even afterwards, though, the sense that everything you know might be wrong lingers like an undeletable wall post. You don't know what to believe any more, and start considering the possibilities of some or all of the players being sophisticated androids, or that Angela has made up your entire existence down to the cinema seat your possibly imaginary arse is occupying. In any case, you're more likely to hesitate to add that beautiful girl who sent you that lovely message yesterday.

Catfish is in UK cinemas on 17 December. ®

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