Abstract art has always had its skeptics, but the documentary My Kid Could Paint That gives new meaning to "artistic inquiry." Following a blithely instinctive painter under investigation by unconvinced critics, reporters, and patrons, Amir Bar-Lev's film pits irony and sarcasm against innocence and joy-or does it? Could the painter be a fraud? Only one phenomenon could set off such a furor in the jaded art world: four-year-old painter Marla Olmstead, who may or may not be thinking outside the juice box.
Granted access by Marla's parents, the filmmaker follows the family to art openings; observes the development of the little girl's astonishingly lucrative career, as steered by Dad; and listens to doubts of a mother fretful about her daughter having a normal life. Bar-Lev's own cinematic investigation becomes a trip through a hall-of-mirrors gallery when his sprightly human-interest story turns into a maelstrom of doubt.
A 60 Minutes story proposes that Marla's sophisticated abstract paintings have been finished or even painted wholesale by others, causing Bar-Lev to becomes obsessed with capturing the start-to-finish painting of a Marla Olmstead work. His difficulties in doing so raise essential questions beyond the initial ones about the value of abstract art. Is Marla's art a lie? And what, for that matter, is the truth?
Warned by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman that his film "is essentially going to be a lie...a construction of things" and needled by the protective reporter who broke Marla's story, Bar-Lev must concede that he's a part of the "hungry monster" that is Big Media. Aside from the fascinating intellectual issues, My Kid Could Paint That is a wrenching portrait of a family out of bounds.
Mark Olmstead was the night manager at a Frito-Lay factory, his wife Laura a dental assistant. Mark's hobby was art, and after Marla pitched in one day, nothing would ever be the same. Tensions arise between spouses and between the parents and the kids (Marla has a brother who appears a bit neglected). What the kids will one day think of the circus that is Marla's career is a thought that haunts Laura. By the time she blurts, "I want to take a polygraph...what have I done to my children?" you'll be well on the edge of your seat.
Surprisingly but gratifyingly, My Kid Could Paint That gets a special edition release from the good people at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Besides a best-case-scenario transfer, complete with 5.0 audio, the disc carries a commentary by gallery owner Anthony Brunelli and film editor John Walter. It's one of the more useless commentaries I've heard, given Brunelli's obvious bias and Walter's limited perspective as post-production editor (Why not filmmaker Bar-Lev, who did press for the film? Hmmm...)
Running approximately thrity-five minutes, "Back to Binghamton" collates deleted scenes, outtakes, and post-screening Q&As from Bar-Lev's publicity tour that shed a bit of light on what little has transpired since the film was locked. The brief featurette "Michael Kimmelman on Art" features additional comments by New York Times' senior art critic, and the bright star of the film's talking-heads segments. Here's one of the best documentaries (and one of the best films) of 2008; if you missed it in theatres, consider it a must-see on home video.
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