Review: `Kid’ a Complex Look at Art

October 4, 2007 at 7:08 pm Leave a comment

The documentary “My Kid Could Paint That” encompasses some heady topics purity of talent, the nature of art, truth in journalism within a deceptively simple package. In that regard, it’s a lot like the work of Marla Olmstead, a cheerful little girl from upstate New York whose paintings made her an international sensation when she was just 4 years old that is, until questions began to arise as to the authenticity of her work.

Marla’s abstract splatterings vibrantly reminiscent of Pollock or de Kooning with titles like “Flower” and “Mosquito Bite” are colorful and alive in a childlike way yet show the polish and maturity of an adult.

Her father, Mark, an amateur painter himself, likes the attention his daughter brings and bristles at the suggestion that he may have coached her or, worse yet, doctored the canvases himself. But her mother, Laura, is hesitant to give into the media demands from the beginning, an instinct that will prove prophetic.

Director Amir Bar-Lev began his stripped-down, intimate film as a human interest story and ended up becoming a reluctant central figure, as he was the one person close enough to the family to be able to determine the facts. His participation may sound solipsistic on the surface, but it adds another unexpected, fascinating layer to this already complex tale.

As the legend goes, Mark was painting one day in 2002 when Marla, barely 2, showed an interest in what he was doing and asked to join him. He gave her a canvas and some brushes a star was born. A friend who owns a coffee house near the Olmsteads’ home in Binghamton, N.Y., hung some of Marla’s works on the walls. Customers asked to buy them; her first exhibition followed about a year later in August 2004. (Gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who also clearly reveled in the spotlight, compared the potential pricelessness of Marla’s paintings to that of Andy Warhol.)

An article by Elizabeth Cohen of the Press & Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton led to a New York Times story, and that would be the end of the family’s peace and anonymity (Marla also has a younger brother, Zane). Jane Pauley, “Inside Edition” and “Good Morning America” called, as did Crayola, asking to make Marla a spokesperson. Her pieces were going for up to $15,000, buyers falling in love not just with the art but with the story of the young artist herself.

The lone voice of skepticism was that of Charlie Rose, who did a segment about Marla on “60 Minutes II” in February 2005. It featured video from a hidden surveillance camera of the girl painting in the family’s basement (which the Olmsteads agreed to) with Mark audibly whispering to her in the background, urging her in certain directions. The final product didn’t look quite as sophisticated as her earlier paintings then again, Picasso went through various aesthetic phases, didn’t he?

Overnight, young Marla was labeled a fraud and her parents were condemned as liars who profited from their innocent child (excerpts from some of the nastier e-mails the Olmsteads received are both amusing and disturbing).

Despite feeling burned by the strangers they’d allowed into their lives, though, the family lets Bar-Lev stick around. (“I open myself up to you,” Laura admits. “I choose to trust you.”) But all of a sudden, his documentary has changed. About halfway through the film, instead of asking questions of others, he begins questioning himself. Even Cohen, the reporter, turns the tables and asks him on camera what he plans to do now. Driving home alone at night, he acknowledges feeling “sad” and “conflicted,” but he never gets in the way.

Smartly, he also never gives the audience his final verdict on whether he thinks Marla acted alone in her creations. Maybe he doesn’t know the answer, maybe he’s just confident enough in himself and in us to let us debate and reach our own conclusions. Either way, he’s made a film that’s sure to inspire long discussions afterward.

One thing is for certain, though. Marla kept painting long after the storm died down. With everyone fretting around her, she remained happy, beautiful, blissfully oblivious. And she always made it look effortless.

“My Kid Could Paint That,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for language. Running time: 83 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

Source: www.cinema-pedia.com

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