I love a documentary that doles out both sides of an interesting story and then forces you to decide for yourself where the truth actually lies. Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That is precisely that kind of documentary: It offers a very interesting (yet decidedly ambiguous) story, offers two very distinct sides of the story, gives tons of interesting facts and opinions, and then leaves you to decide who's telling the truth ... and if it really matters. The story is this: There's this adorable little 4-year-old girl who lives in Binghamton, New York. Her name is Marla Olmstead. She has a cute little brother, two adoring parents and a huge batch of talent in the painting department ... or does she?
In the first half of this effortlessly entertaining documentary, we're given no reason to doubt that little Marla is a true genius, a stunning pre-school ingenue, and a small human being overstuffed with some really staggering artistic talents. Propping herself up on the kitchen floor and using her daddy's paints and canvases, little Marla sure looks like she's some sort of astronomical prodigy -- especially after a local restaurateur and gallery owner decide to exhibit her pieces ... and the things absolutely fly off the shelf. Marla becomes a national sensation after a local news report leads to a 60 Minutes story -- and that's when the wheels start to fall off. IS Marla the actual artist, or is she receiving all sorts of "coaching" from her devoted father? Has the Olmstead family pulled a clever fast one on the oh-so-trendy world of modern art -- or are they simply in possession of a little girl who's got some sincerely staggering talents?
Director Amir Bar-Lev manages to become a part of his own documentary (something a documentarian should generally avoid doing) but does so in an earnest and well-intentioned fashion. He clearly wants to believe the parents, but his natural skepticism often gets in the way -- and what good is a documentary if it doesn't search for the truth, uncomfortable as that quest may be?
In addition to focusing on this naturally fascinating "human interest" story, the film also manages to pose a few insightful questions regarding the legitimacy of modern art. Heck, if a tiny little four-year-old is able to produce works that sell for $20,000 apiece ... what does that say about the grown-ups who make millions from canvases covered with three splashes of primary colors? And imagine how all those "starving artists" must feel!
My Kid Could Paint That (which was purchased at the Sundance Film Festival by Sony Pictures Classics for just under two million bucks) does a rock-solid and entirely admirable job of dancing on both sides of the fence. Seeds of doubt are immediately followed by thoroughly convincing arguments, and those are promptly interrupted by more nagging questions. It might sound like a frustrating little experience, but My Kid gets exponentially more entertaining as each successive question and contradiction is offered. As the movie draws to a close you may find yourself absolutely positive that A) Marla's parents are manipulative opportunists or B) Marla's parents have an astoundingly talented daughter. Personally, I walked away from the movie feeling a little bit of column A and an equal dose from column B. And that's precisely the way I like it.