DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, the documentary called "Catfish," opens in many cities this week. Dubbed a reality thriller by Universal, its distributor, the film tracks an increasingly intense online relationship between the brother of one of the New York filmmakers and a family in Michigan.

Film critic David Edelstein has this carefully spoiler-free review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: There have been rumors that the documentary "Catfish" isn't on the up-and-up. I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is, I'm gun-shy these days about narrative nonfiction. Apart from all the literary memoirs that have turned out to be fake, there are documentaries like, "Tarnation," "Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop" and recently, "I'm Still Here," in which you can't completely trust what's onscreen.

It's true documentaries should always be approached cautiously, since it's easy to manipulate reality, even when a filmmaker takes a passive, fly-on-the-wall approach. But, more than ever, the video-diary format lends itself to subjects who are acting instead of being.

The second reason I mention these charges is that even if parts of the movie are, let's say, engineered, "Catfish" works as a great story of isolation, deception and finally connection in our strange new Internet-oriented world.

One other thing that's so strange and new is that, thanks to high-def video, making a movie can be almost as easy as breathing. It was hard and expensive to pick up a 16-millimeter camera and shoot hundreds of hours, but you can keep a video diary of anything. You don't have to know where it will lead, which is the foundation of "Catfish."

Here's the scene. Two New York filmmakers, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who usually make dance documentaries, get interested in something happening to Schulman's younger brother, Tanev(ph) or Nev. He's a photographer, and has published in a magazine a striking photo of a female dancer lifted high by a male. On Facebook, Nev has been contacted by an 8-year-old girl from rural Michigan named Abby. She wants to send him a painting she did of his photo, and when it arrives, it's better than good: It captures the energy in the dancer's limbs, the sense of transcendence in their flight.

Abby sends more paintings. She's a prodigy. And through Facebook, Nev makes contact with her older sister, Megan, who's very attractive in photos, and clearly has the hots for him. It's no wonder, since Nev, with his dark hair and eyes and boyish diffidence, might as well be called Mr. Adorable. And he's just as excited about Megan.

The first phone conversation between the two is charming and awkward, like old-fashioned young lovers a-courting.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Catfish")

Ms. MEGAN FACCIO: (as Herself) Hello?

Mr. NEV SCHULMAN (Photographer): (as Himself) Hey, Megan?

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Yeah?

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Hey, it's Nev.

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Hi, how are you?

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Your voice is not at all what I expected.

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) I'm sorry.

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) No. Not. No, it's - it's really, it's a terrific voice. I just, I don't know. I guess you never really think of a voice when you only know somebody in a certain way. I happen to think my voice is sort of irritating.

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: I can't talk in too much detail about "Catfish" without giving away its winding and suspenseful trajectory. Obviously, this wouldn't be much of a story if Abby and Megan and their mother, Angela, were entirely as they present themselves. But what and who are they? The trio of guys finally use Google Maps and a GPS, and head off to Michigan in search of answers, and there are moments when "Catfish" develops a "Blair Witch Project"-like vibe: Maybe Facebook will claim three victims. Indeed, the studio's marketing plays up the mystery-thriller aspect, with dark, empty houses in the woods and details that don't add up.

And here I must stop, except to say the emotions the movie kicks up run the gamut from anxiety to contempt to curiosity to compassion. One of the characters turns out to have unimagined depth, and by the end, I was fighting off tears.

As for that charge that "Catfish" is faked, I don't believe it. Certain scenes do feel less authentic than others, as if they're being played up for the sake of drama, for example Nev's starry-eyed responses to Megan's emails. But there is, underneath, a true sense of adventure. The film gets at the magic-carpet aspect of this new medium, which whisks you into other people's lives so quickly and intensely.

Although there are dangers, although you can't fully trust what you read online, there's always the potential for revelatory encounters. In this new realm, people compulsively hide and expose themselves in fascinating and unpredictable ways - ways that can draw you more deeply into their inner lives than face-to-face interactions. Every person in "Catfish" comes out feeling more alive. And so does the audience.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Catfish," the new documentary about a computerized social networking site.

FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, where she saw 22 movies in six says. You can read all about her experience and see her photos from the festival on FRESH AIR's Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. And tumblr is spelled without an E - T-u-m-b-l-r.

Coming up, I'll review the new HBO crime drama, "Boardwalk Empire."

This is FRESH AIR.

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