Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That (2007) first came to my attention after Mike D'Angelo assigned it a rare A- during last year's Sundance Film Festival. Even before reading about the film's subject matter, it was the provocative title that first caught my eye. Taunting and contemptuous, I was expecting a quirky indie comedy with eccentric parents, their exasperated children, and an all-around kooky premise. Doing a little more research, I was excited to learn that this title had been assigned to a documentary feature about then four-year-old Marla Olmstead, the controversial artist whose abstract expressionist paintings have become the objects of major scrutiny. The young girl, initially received as a genius by the art community and beyond, became a notorious personality following a 60 Minutes II segment which suggested that her parents must have played a major role in the production of these pieces. Their conclusion was made as a result of a controlled experiment in which Marla was unable to produce anything at the same level of her prior work. Let the debate begin...
The first two acts of the film are dedicated to exploring both sides of the debate, making the case for and against Marla. The first thirty minutes document the euphoric highs experienced by the family prior to that polarizing news program, and reactions from Marla's parents, supportive gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, and opinionated journalist Elizabeth Cohen (the writer who first reported on Marla's pieces). Post-60 Minutes, Bar-Lev tracks the turning tide and the effect it has upon patrons and the once-adoring media. As further videotaped painting sessions with Marla occur and more troubling evidence emerges, her genius reputation becomes less assured.
The film, ostensibly a "did-she-or-didn't-she" exposé and set up as a fall-from-grace, movingly develops into a much more complex meditation on even bigger questions about modern art. Fittingly, Marla remains a distanced, sidelined figure in this film ultimately about adults grappling with issues about representation, the "truth", and the innocence of childhood. Ultimately, Bar-Lev isn't interested in whether or not Marla actually created these pieces, but how her involvement with the contemporary art community has sparked a discussion about the very nature of how art is consumed and received. Most compelling is the question of whether or not the artist can be removed from the equation when their art is finally displayed to the public. More to the point, would these paintings have been as successful if the public was unaware that a four-year-old had painted them? Would it make a difference? (Read: How could it not?) Bar-Lev also considers the ethical matters of journalistic voyeurism into this child's life (including us viewers as a culpable audience to it), and to what extent Mark and Laura Olmstead are responsible for the onslaught of praise, criticism, and fascination that Marla will surely have to negotiate for the rest of her life.
My Kid Could Paint That particularly shines in its self-reflective segments regarding the relationship between the director and his subjects, and what each party owes the other. Bar-Lev became quite close to the Olmsteads and their children over the course of filming, and was forced to "write" himself into the piece once issues of trust and exploitation began to surface. The director handles this portion of the film with sensitivity and restraint, and the tension between his understandable guilt and his role as director is palpable. One such moment towards the conclusion involves Bar-Lev point blank asking the couple about the credibility of Marla's work. The response by the couple, especially in Mark's expressionless dodging and Laura's wrenching realization that yet another attempt to exonerate the family has failed once again, is deeply unsettling. I highly recommend watching the extra material included on the DVD, the majority of which would have benefited the film (which runs a much-too-brief eighty-two minutes).
As with any successful documentary, the fascination and questions extend far beyond the limitations of a feature-length film. Indeed, the fallout between Bar-Lev and the Olmsteads during the film's release (the parents have expressed dismay at the director's shift in perspective) adds another layer to the drama, as well as the fact that Marla's paintings continue to successfully sell and are shown at galleries despite all the mud-slinging. The speculation will surely continue as Marla grows older and, eventually, will be asked to comment on these happenings as an adult. B+