The story of My Kid Could Paint That shifts several times over the course of the documentary. Initially, it’s about what it means to be a prodigy. Later it evolves into a discussion of how we experience and assess modern art. But ultimately, it becomes a meditation on the twenty-four-hour media machine’s use and abuse of “human interest” subjects, the ethics of turning an individual’s life into a bite-sized narrative, and the responsibilities that journalists do and do not have toward the private people they cover. That’s a lot to pack into barely eighty minutes of footage—I wish that documentarian Amir Bar-Lev have delved deeper—but despite the film’s shortcomings, it prompted a great deal of thoughtful, provocative, heartfelt discussion in my home, and honestly, what more can you ask of a documentary?
Bar-Lev’s subject is Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old whose paintings seem to reflect true artistry rather than mere childish doodles. On a whim, her parents, Mark and Laura, agree to display some of the little girl’s work at a friend’s coffee shop in their hometown. A gallery owner expresses interest, the local paper does a story, and in a matter of weeks, TV crews from around the world have descended upon the Olmstead family, and Marla’s paintings are showing in galleries in New York and Los Angeles and fetching five-figure prices from collectors. But then one of those TV crews loudly questions the authenticity of Marla’s work, and fame turns to infamy overnight, leaving the Olmsteads reeling.
Bar-Lev began work on his documentary before 60 Minutes reversed Marla’s fortunes, and afterward, Marla’s parents set their hopes on his film contradicting the TV program’s devastating attack. The result is an astonishingly candid look at the Olmstead family, and the intimacy, frankly, is often discomfiting. Mark clearly relishes Marla’s stardom, but Laura cringes at the media frenzy—she adamantly objects to the prodigy label—and the differences in their approach to the media and to their daughter’s talents appear to create considerable tension in their marriage. Furthermore, scenes in which Mark chides and cajoles Marla as she paints inevitably raise doubts about whether the girl truly does create her work independently, as the Olmsteads insist.
The documentary threatens to veer from uncomfortable to exploitative (and some might argue that it does), but I think Bar-Lev’s transparency saves it from that. When he begins to question the Olmsteads’ story, he acknowledges that to the camera and, eventually, to Mark and Laura themselves, respectfully laying his cards on the table and affording them the opportunity to respond (something 60 Minutes, incidentally, failed to do).
Even more interesting, he gives people he interviews a platform to question his motives and agenda. The local reporter who first broke the Marla story and seems to regret doing so, for example, is a perceptive, thoughtful voice of restraint—the conscience of the movie—and her straightforward critique of the media machine, and Bar-Lev as a part of that, is quietly thought-provoking, even moving. To a large extent, the documentary becomes a meta-documentary, but it works because Bar-Lev’s desire to both make a good movie and be a good person seems genuine, and because that desire is hardly mere navel-gazing. The power of today’s media to elevate ordinary people into the public eye is unprecedented, and so, too, is the acute vulnerability those people face in the spotlight—whether for inconsequential puff pieces or more substantial coverage. Just look at the vicious, libelous attacks on the S-CHIP poster family in the past couple weeks.
I haven’t even raised the questions inspired by the Olmsteads’ agent, himself a marginally successful photorealist painter, who at one point practically declares that his promotion of Marla’s abstract work is an elaborate prank on the modern artworld that would celebrate a child’s random scribblings over an adult’s skillful representations. Nor have I mentioned the New York Times art critic whose eloquent discussions of modern art and artistic judgment and the lie of narrative made me long to study aesthetics again. (The Philosophy of Art was my favorite class of my college career.) Nor have I described just how cute and charming and normal little Marla is, how her love of bright colors and gloppy oils is endearing and inspiring even if you don’t believe she’s a “pint-sized Picasso,” as one headline so queasily put it.
I can’t possibly chronicle everything in a few paragraphs, and yet My Kid Could Paint That left me wanting so much more—more thinking about art and ethics, and the nature of talent, and the responsibilities of parents—more of everything except little Marla, now that I think about it. Because in the end, Marla is beside the point. My Kid Could Paint That isn’t about a kid at all but about the adults swarming around her. And that, perhaps, is the heart of the problem that Bar-Lev’s documentary only begins to discuss.