Amir Bar-Lev, whose Fighter (2001) followed two Holocaust survivors along the route by which one of them escaped from a Nazi death camp, has now made a dazzling, even more brilliant documentary. (In Binghamton—near where I went to college.)
The “star” of My Kid Could Paint That is Marla Olmstead, who started painting when she was 2, and whose abstract oils by the time she was 4 had taken in $300,000. A worldwide phenomenon, Marla fell into disrepute—or, rather, her parents fell there—when a 60 Minutes piece anchored by Charlie Rose assailed her work, through an “expert,” as fraudulent. Bar-Lev, who at that point had already begun shooting this film, wants to believe, he says, that Marla’s work is her own.
Documenting Marla’s creation of a painting from start to finish would seem to resolve the matter—except that the result is vastly inferior to other work that Marla has signed, which evidences defter, more intricate brushwork.
Bar-Lev is close to irresistible as he painfully plumbs and weighs “the truth,” especially against his own need to “impose” some sort of “story” on his material. Marla herself is certainly irresistible; throughout, Bar-Lev expresses his love for children, not only with Marla, but with her equally adorable younger brother. But one must feel disconcerted when Marla begs her father for assistance with a painting as though she is used to asking for his help; and Marla’s mother, Laura, becomes almost a figure of evil as she dissolves into fluent tears at Amir’s suggestion of something being amiss and in the next breath, incredibly, asserts that crying isn’t something she normally does.
Bar-Lev, with agile visual wit, punctures the Olmsteads’ self-serving self-portrait by devising painted/animated backgrounds for scenes of their “realistic” li[v]es.
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