As cunning as a double-sided Kandinsky but ultimately as shallow as a few layers of oil, Amir Bar-Lev’s Sundance sensation alternates between two modes, both of them essentially slippery and populist. The first is an implicit let’s-laugh-at-the-art-world raspberry: Adorable Marla Olmstead, age 4, finds her canvases highly praised by the cognoscenti and selling for thousands of dollars. Her parents are mystified. Could the whole of art criticism be a sham? (Don’t answer that.) Go Marla!
The second half of the film introduces a strand of doubt—is Marla a hoax?—which Bar-Lev wants to present as a weighty matter of media schadenfreude. In fact, it’s just an injection of talk-show-variety salaciousness. After witnessing a 60 Minutes special on Marla that rightly questions her authenticity, Bar-Lev includes a shot of himself somehow driving a car in the darkness while wringing his hands neurotically. Here’s a thought, documentarian: Why not actually delve into the troubling question at hand, instead of whining or taking these weird parents at their word? The film’s lack of closure is more than vexing; it’s seemingly lobbed out as a response to those viewers who might, God forbid, insist upon investigatory truth. The result is a weightless diversion. Cute kid. Cool art. Another Pollock or Franz Kline? For that information, we’ll need a braver filmmaker.