Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev
Full credits from IMDb
My Kid Could Paint That touches on a lot of Big Ideas, but above all it focuses on the nature of narratives. Four-year-old Marla Olmstead of upstate New York became a media sensation when her professional-level—whatever that means—abstract paintings began selling for thousands of dollars, and then became an object of scandal when it was suggested that her amateur-painter father may have had a hand in her works. (“Prodigy Schmodigy,” one headline read.)
If that sounds like a tailor-made media storyline, it might be because the news organizations covering the story concocted it. Director Amir Bar-Lev takes little Marla’s rise and fall as a jumping off point, using her as his subject but not his focus. His film tackles the essence of art, life, storytelling and the requisite imposition of narratives—even the problem of documentation itself. It’s a story about grown-ups, a local reporter says, and it’s also “a story about what happens with stories.”
From the start, My Kid Could Paint That is very conscious of its own construction: the film opens with the director interviewing Marla and her brother (or trying to interview, as the two prove reticent interlocutors). Many of the film’s shots include cameras, crew and boom mics, while the director is often audible during the talking head interviews. (Thus violating the usual documentary standard of the invisible creator; only The Fog of War, when Errol Morris occasionally, and angrily, questions Robert MacNamara from off camera, comes to mind as another recent example. Michael Moore and his followers are obviously excluded.)
My Kid Could Paint That raises, if not exactly deals with, many more complex intellectual concerns than the typical indie doc. It examines, for example, the Western world’s obsession with the child prodigy. (“If a kid is performing at an adult level,” an art critic for the Times says, “it’s like a magic trick.”) It also looks at the way celebrity diminishes the natural joy artists get from creating, as well as the way parents can relish the fame of their celebrity children; that the father, who seems like a nice enough guy, craves the limelight and the company of artists to the extent that he’ll exploit his child is a strong subtext that runs through the film. The film also looks at the relationship between the artist and the admirer, and the way fans stamp their own personalities onto the artist’s, especially when it’s a personality as easily dominated as a child’s. Finally, it examines, and to an extent explains, the theoretical underpinnings of modern art.
For starters, is abstract art bullshit if my kid can make it? Not necessarily, critics explain. Modern art often frustrates viewers because, unlike traditional modes of painting, it no longer clearly explains itself—that is, its story—to the audience. Figurative paintings, though static, still impart a story—Seurat tells us something, but Pollock tells us nothing. In abstract painting, the artwork by itself is no longer sufficient; it doesn’t tell a story, but rather comments on a “story” that we’re already expected to know. It requires a bit of homework.
Bar-Lev runs up against a similar issue in the making of his film: is the film itself, as it’s coming along, sufficient to explain itself? That is, is the story he’s constructing the whole story? Or does his presence, and the presence of other reporters, cameramen, art critics, etc., on the film’s fringes make him a part of the story? Paraphrasing Heisenberg, Marla’s mother notes early on that, “once you measure something, you alter it.” One of the key problems in the story is that no one but the parents can capture footage of Marla creating her paintings, footage that would potentially dispel the accusations of inauthenticity. (When an interview subject assumes the role of interviewer and asks the director what, exactly, he wants, he answers, “I want footage of Marla painting that would put my doubts to rest.”) Does the presence of strangers and a camera make Marla behave uncharacteristically, cause her to paint like a typical four year old, or is the whole thing a hoax?
Bar-Lev leaves it up to us while he cleverly puts himself into the film; by admitting his own presence he clues the audience in to the fact that his film is simply a story that he’s created, and though it deals in real people and facts, it’s not necessarily “the truth”. While the rest of the media turns against the family (because every rise needs a fall in a 60 Minutes world), the family expects him to exonerate them. But he has his own doubts that make him uncomfortable, raising the issue of, what are the documentarian’s obligations to his subject? Honesty and fairness, of course, but Bar-Lev realizes that the developing scandal is good for his own film; and as a human being with a moral compass, it makes him feel guilty.
Bar-Lev comes to understand the inherent unfairness of storytelling, which involves imposing a narrative structure on the chaos of reality that doesn’t lend itself easily to such simple strictures. The film climaxes in a tense interview with the parents when Bar-Lev all but accuses one or both of them of lying. Has the filmmaker betrayed them? Because they both look awfully betrayed. The mother eventually breaks into tears, which she recognizes is perfect for the film. “It’s documentary gold,” she snidely remarks before walking out; by the end, everyone realizes they are no longer actually living their lives but acting as characters in a manufactured story. That may be fair to do to adults in a media saturated world—but to kids? “What have I done to my children,” the mother asks near the end, “putting them through this?”
Watch the trailer: