By Anna Merlan
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No matter how apparently brilliant or obviously slobbering a kid is, every single parent has said the exact same thing about 38 times this week alone: My Kid Could Paint That. We're so proud of our little geniuses and so desperate to prove to the world that our children know more, do more, are more than any other children alive. So we treat them like trained monkeys: Do this! Now do that! No need to set the sights low, not for our baby Einsteins—like that 5-year-old boy from Dallas who's a member of Mensa, c'mon. See, every one of our kids will grow up to be president, an astronaut and a rock star. And a Mensa member. By 5.
Or, in the case of Marla Olmstead, they'll become acclaimed abstract artists—the next de Kooning, a li'l Pollock. Three years ago, when Marla was all of 4 years old, she was referred to in The New York Times as "the hottest new abstract artist in town," just as Marla was opening her first gallery show. She'd already been displayed in a coffee shop in her upstate New York hometown of Binghampton, but she was ascending the art world's paint-splattered ladder. In time, Marla would be featured in the international press, where she'd be described as an abstract art prodigy—this little girl whose paintings eventually sold for small fortunes to wealthy folks who would spend hours dissecting the details in this mini master's canvases.
But it would not take long before skeptics emerged: Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes II showed up on the scene to celebrate Marla's masterpieces, only to come away unconvinced that she had painted any of them. Indeed, there was a burgeoning school of critics who believed Marla's father, Mark, had painted the works; after all, he was a frustrated artist himself. Maybe he so wanted his daughter to look like a child prodigy that he faked the whole thing, with or without the knowledge of his wife, Laura.
Those seeking the absolute truth on the subject will come away disappointed by Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about Marla and her family, My Kid Could Paint That. The filmmaker, who was invited into the Olmsteads' household before the controversy erupted and who remained long afterward, does not offer any easy answers, despite several attempts to get Marla to create a painting on film, from start to finish. Just because she can't do it for Bar-Lev doesn't mean she can't when no one else is around—at least, that's Bar-Lev's explanation, which he offers by way of insisting that no 4-year-old should be subjected to such scrutiny. After all, she did not ask for this attention. Her parents, though? Yeah, that's another story.
And it's but one that runs throughout Bar-Lev's stunning film, which is about not only this little girl, but also the role of the documentarian, who, in this instance, is forced to play investigator as well; the expectations of parents who thrust their children in front of rabid, ravenous adults; and the very definition of modern art itself. Says Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times and Bar-Lev's witness for the prosecution, Marla's success more or less "pulls the veil off this con game" known as modern art.
Perhaps the best way to describe My Kid Could Paint That is as a thriller without a resolution. Bar-Lev begins as Marla's the toast of the small town, and the audience is initially cheered by her success—this beautiful, magical child capable of greatness wholly by accident. Bar-Lev opens with a montage of local, national and international TV news talking heads celebrating the little girl who's "creating a whirlwind of attention" by selling her works for "thousands of dollars, can you believe it?" Anthony Brunelli, the art gallery owner who first displayed Marla's work, acts as both cheerleader and pimp: "Even if a 3- or 4-year-old didn't do them, you'd like 'em," says Brunelli, who pitches the entire family as Gap-ad perfect and insists "she's the most popular story in the world right now." Dad's digging it too—but Mom, not so much. Indeed, one gets the sense throughout the film that Laura Olmstead would prefer all the hype and hoopla disappear—if only it weren't so much fun and so, well, damned profitable. But eventually there's that damned 60 Minutes II piece, and it all begins to fall apart, as true believers begin voicing their doubts: Did Marla do all this, or did she have outside help?
In an instant, Bar-Lev's charming story of The Little Girl Who Paints turns into something deeper and darker—to the point where he turns the camera on himself, literally, as he doubts not only Marla and her parents, but also his own intentions. Is he out to get the family now? No, he tells himself. He's just "sad" that his movie has careened out of control, to the point where he must choose whether to protect and defend or out and ruin a little girl who wanted absolutely none of this to begin with. My Kid Could Paint That's about art—and it is art, among the best documentaries ever made about that elusive process of manufacturing something out of nothing. But it's also a must-see for every single parent who believes their children are special, when all they want to be is your children.
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