You’ve heard the expression, “If I told the truth, no one would believe me”? Dig this: I’ve just watched the best Christopher Guest film ever made, but it wasn’t made by Christopher Guest. In fact, it wasn’t even a “mockumentary”.
Amar Bar-Lev’s new documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That”, is ostensibly about the “career” of 4-year old (not a typo) Marla Olmstead, who hit the MSM spotlight briefly a few years back when her abstract paintings became a surprise hit in the New York art world. I use the qualifier “ostensibly”, because by the time the credits roll, you realize that this film goes much, much deeper than standard issue news-kicker fodder about yet another child prodigy. As one of the film’s subjects, a reporter for a local newspaper, muses to the filmmaker, “…this story is really more about the adults (in Marla’s orbit).”
The back story: Mark and Laura Olmstead, a young couple living in sleepy Binghamton, New York, begin to notice that their daughter, Marla, appears to have a knack for art that transcends the random scribbling of a typical toddler. To be sure, every parent likes to think their kid is a bloody little genius, but the Olmsteads receive validation when a friend suggests they hang some of Marla’s work in his local coffee shop (for a lark) and to their surprise, the paintings start selling like hotcakes. A local newspaper reporter picks up on the story, as does the owner of a local art gallery. Then, faster than you can say “just out of diapers”, young Marla becomes a media darling, resulting in a substantial spike in the value of her paintings (some are sold in the five-figure range). Everything is going quite swimmingly until “60 Minutes” sets their sights on the family, airing a “takedown” story in 2004 that includes hidden camera footage showing Mark Olmstead barking instructions at Marla as she paints. Needless to say, sales drop off dramatically.
Bar-Lev began filming prior to the “60 Minutes” story; hence the first act is fairly standard documentary fare, incorporating interviews with the parents, the gallery owner and the newspaper reporter with some of the family’s home movies. You do get a vibe early on that Mark Olmstead is enjoying the spotlight more than the rest of his family; Marla is way too young to really understand what’s going on, and his wife Laura retains a cautious pragmatism. “I know there’s a fine line between a child prodigy and a freak show…” she says at one point. Even while she is backstage getting prepped for Marla’s appearance on the “Tonight Show”, she worries out loud “…if all of this is really good for Marla”. Is she telling this to the camera, or taking a by-proxy jab at her husband?
The first real seeds of doubt are sown when Bar-Lev sets up his camera to capture Marla at work. Marla sits on the floor, staring an empty canvas for quite some time while her father fidgets. At one point, Marla says something very interesting. “Do you want to paint something, Daddy?” Whoops! “I don’t know what’s wrong,” Mark says nervously, “She usually doesn’t act like this…” Uh huh. The awkward moments are just beginning.
On the night that the “60 Minutes” story airs, Bar-Lev’s camera is there in the Olmstead’s living room, focusing on Mark and Laura, with their faces bathed in the light of the TV screen. This is where things really start to get interesting. Apparently, the parents have no idea exactly what Mike Wallace & co. are planning until the night the story airs. This is evidenced by Mark’s facial expression, which morphs from curiously smug self-satisfaction to consternation, then shock, disbelief and resignation. By the time you hear the “tick-tick-tick” emanating from the TV speaker, his face has gone completely ashen.
Now the film takes a fascinating turn as Bar-Lev, who has become somewhat attached to his subjects, reacts to this possibility of deception in a palpable fashion. He starts to question his own motivations for making his film. He wants to be on their side, but now he will not rest until he has documented Marla creating a painting, from start to finish. From this point on, the film almost becomes a thriller. It begins to seem that none of the principals are really who they appear to be (with the exception of the 4-year old Marla).
For me, the “money shot” arrives in a scene where you can hear Bar-Lev apologizing off-camera to the couple for intruding on their lives in the first place. A tearful Laura suddenly explodes at him. “Stop saying you’re sorry!” she screams at the camera, then adds, with a perfect pitch of irony and sarcasm, “This is documentary gold!” as she leaps up from the couch and then stalks up and exits out of the shot, leaving her husband alone on the couch, staring at his shoes. It is, indeed, a moment of pure documentary gold.
At the end of the day, “My Kid Can Paint That” is not just about whether or not Marla is for real; it’s about the nature of “art” itself (be it painting, filmmaking, music, whatever) At what point does childish scribbling become “abstract expressionism”? Does a “documentary” become a lie the moment the filmmaker makes the first edit? Whose judgment determines the intrinsic and/or monetary value of a painting-a local newspaper reporter, a New York Times art critic or Mike Wallace? Does the eye of the beholder still count for anything? Does it really matter who painted it, if you feel it’s worth hanging on your wall? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays-Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, and do you care? Does it really matter that the Monkees didn’t write any of their hits or play their own instruments? Feast your eyes on this exceptional film and decide for yourself.