Dir. Amir Bar-Lev. US. 2007. 81mins.
My Kid Could Paint That addresses the sceptical notion that has dogged painting ever since art ceased to depict a pure likeness of its subject - that abstract art often looks like it could have been painted by a child. Amir Bar-Lev's documentary then zooms in on abstract paintings that are said to be the work of Marla Olmstead, an adorable untaught four-year-old girl in Binghamton New York, whose huge canvases brought high prices and media scrutiny from around the world.
The mystery of a small-town child's talent and the mystery of whether she actually painted the pictures are the kinds of tales that sell newspapers and - potentially - movie tickets.
Given the vast audience that has followed this story from New York to Tokyo, My Kid Could Paint That can benefit from the public's interest in revisiting an unsolved mystery. Since art is now a commodity with sale prices that are tracked globally, the documentary should have long international reach in theatres and television.
Bar-Lev's access to the Olmstead family brings in another story, the parents' own complicated role in promoting the young girl's 'career,' which risked consuming her childhood, as their house came under siege from television news crews. Is it nurturing, or exploitation.
The director's previous documentary, Fighter looked at another paradoxical relationship between two Czech Holocaust survivors from opposite political poles, who retrace the poignant steps of their escape from the Nazis while bickering like an Odd Couple.
In My Kid Could Paint That, the credibility of Marla and her parents comes into question after the child is the subject of an investigative report on the television show, Sixty Minutes II.
Correspondent Charlie Rose's team places hidden cameras in the Olmstead's basement, with the parents' consent, and Marla fails to paint. Had she needed to be coached by her night-shift factory manager father, or had he made the paintings'
Almost overnight, the prodigy is brought down to size. Yet in a third act Marla's career rises again, as her father creates a web site that shows her in the act of painting. Disaffected collectors are drawn back to buy a new series of mature-looking abstractions, which sold for up to $20,000.
Marla, a beautiful child, now six, returns like a groomed and scrubbed Shirley Temple to gallery openings. Bar-Lev's film creates the fourth act which re-examines the family's role in Marla's comeback, while reviewing her career in news footage.
Rather than take a painterly approach to shooting art artistically, the camera is a dogged investigator, viewing art, family and business from the floor, where the child tends to sit with her tubes of paint and brushes.
A younger brother isn't just tugging for attention in her shadow. Marla says he's 'painted' some of 'her' work - only one of the clues that something's amiss.
The documantary'scharacters which makes this film more about family than art, will hold the public's attention on big screen or small - an ambitious father in over his head; a mother retreating from the media circus; a local artist/dealer who markets the young girl; a Binghamton journalist who warns Bar-Lev that his film is also exploiting the charming vulnerable child.
Art audiences, to which this film will be marketed, will quibble that neither Bar-Lev nor his expert,The New YorkTimes chief art critic Michael Kimmelman, never really answer questions posed early in the film about whether abstract art is legitimate or fraudulent.
The broader audience may feel short-changed that Bar-Lev also fails to resolve whether Marla painted all the paintings, or whether her career is a father/daughter act. Pehhaps Marla didn't paint each of the paintings. But the audience will see that even if she can't paint, she sure can act.
A&E Independent Films
Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Releasing International