Present at the Creation
BY SUZI STEFFEN
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT: Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Editors, John Walter and Michael Levine. Starring Marla Olmstead, Mark and Laura Olmstead, Zane Olmstead, Anthonh Brunelli, Michael Kimmelman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. PG-13. 83 minutes.
"All art in some way is a lie," says New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.
In My Kid Could Paint That, documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev asks big questions about that lie. Marla Olmstead, 4 years old when the film begins in 2004, paints like a child genius, or so people believe. The first portion of the film simply documents her life with her parents and little brother as their world turns upside down: Her paintings start selling for thousands of dollars, and positive media attention comes to her in Binghamton, N.Y., from all over the world.
Bar-Lev and his cameramen stick with the Olmsteads through this time and through the painful moments as 60 Minutes uses a psychologist and hidden video (hidden with the parents' consent) to imply that father Mark, a dabbler in painting, might be the real artist. Bar-Lev also captures Marla painting on camera, a process the parents say disturbs the process of creation. And the audience can easily judge the comparative quality of the documented work to earlier "Marla" pieces.
"I choose to trust you," mom Laura tells Bar-Lev early in the process. During an agonizing interview late in the movie, she cries as she says she just wants him to believe her.
The reporter who first broke the story tells Bar-Lev, "This is a story about adults." Yes, it is — about nice adults, some of them quite intelligent, behaving foolishly. Whether or not Marla paints all of the canvases, the question that haunts the film, also becomes a question of who controls the narrative and what parental and artistic responsibility are. Though Bar-Lev leaves these unanswered, viewers will come away with definite beliefs about Marla — and an appreciation for Bar-Lev's fine, intimate, disturbing film. – Suzi Steffen
My Kid Could Paint That opens Friday, Nov. 30, at the Bijou.