My Kid Could Paint That
Director Amir Bar-Lev's fascinating documentary My Kid Could Paint That follows a typical American success story: A young talent takes the world by storm only to face skepticism and the possibility that it all might be taken away when that career appears to be at its peak. That the documentary's central subject, abstract painter Marla Olmstead, is only 4 and 5 years old during most of the movie is a bit different. But what really sets Kid apart is that it's not an examination of contemporary art and the art market (although it is that), or an overview of contemporary aesthetics (although it touches on that), or a cautionary parenting tale-although it is that, too. Instead, the ongoing story of Olmstead, child prodigy or not, takes director Bar-Lev into the very slippery truths of participatory journalism itself, and he is responsible enough to admit that he doesn't have real answers. Kid is as much about reporting as it is about what it reports.In 2004, Olmstead-the eldest daughter of Mark and Laura Olmstead-becomes a local sensation in her Binghamton, N.Y., hometown where gallerist Anthony Brunelli shows her abstract canvases. Soon Brunelli is selling out of her work and placing it with esteemed clients, and the next thing the Olmsteads know, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is writing about Marla for the paper. All of a sudden, Marla is a worldwide phenomenon-the "pint-sized Pollock" a favorite pull-quote-with a waiting list for works, openings in New York and Los Angeles, and morning talk show appearances. And then 60 Minutes II airs a story casting doubt on Marla's authorship-intimating that her amateur painter father either helped or coached her-and the Olmsteads find themselves local pariahs, berated in livid e-mails for being irresponsible parents or crooks or both, and, in general, called liars by many of the same people who initially championed Marla.And that's when the Olmsteads start seeing the documentarian they let into their lives as either a possible vindicator or the fatal blow. About an hour into this brisk 82-minute feature, Bar-Lev has not only charted Marla's rise and presumable fall, but he also recognizes that he is as much a part of the story as the people he's been following. And he still has questions of his own that he wants answered.Like the amazing, unsung cinema of French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, Bar-Lev doesn't put himself above his subjects, letting the people he interviews comment on and speculate about just what his documentary is going to be. The concluding reward here isn't that Bar-Lev closes the book on the Marla Olmstead controversy-it's that he's willing to concede that the so-called truth all depends on who's telling the tale.