Prodigy or pretence? Thats the question surrounding four-year-old Marla Olmstead and her alleged genius for abstract expressionist painting. But though the issue of whether or not she painted her increasingly expensive canvases is at this documentarys surface, its heart is a thornier tale of media fiction and the elusive nature of truth.
The ball gets rolling when an apparently benevolent "family reporter first prints the tale of Olmstead and her parents, then larger news outlets pick up the story and Marlas paintings begin to sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The befuddled toddler is suddenly in the middle of a major media frenzy, which takes a darker turn when 60 Minutes reports on suspiciously thin evidence that her father Mark actually coached her.
What starts as a study of a child phenomenon transforms into a challenge to her works authenticity, as well as the news worlds need to first build stories and then change them to keep them interesting. By the end, director Amir Bar-Lev is scrutinising himself for his complicity in creating the myth and interfering in his subjects lives, making for an uniquely searching and uncommonly tense viewing experience.
Almost nothing is known for certain: evidence points towards and away from fraud, and stories are told that may be true or may be created to justify the print-and-television feeding frenzy. About all we know for sure is that Olmsteads dealer is a jerk, and even he has opinions that disturb the idea of what abstract art is and why anyone should care.
Make no mistake, this is one troubling movie with enough thematic strands to keep you occupied long after you leave the theatre. (Mongrel Media)