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My Kid Could Paint That
A Rewarding, Stimulating Documentary
by Mel Valentin on Oct 12, 2007
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, My Kid Could Paint That scrutinizes the controversy surrounding Marla Olmstead, a (then) four-year old girl whose abstract paintings were briefly considered the work of an artistic prodigy on par with modern masters. Not all was what it seemed, however, as a severely critical segment on "Sixty Minutes" led to serious doubts as to whether Marla, or her father Mark, a night manager at a Frito-Lay factory and amateur painter, was, in fact, the author of the paintings marketed and sold under Marla's name.
Initially interested in documenting Marla the artist, Bar-Lev was forced to examine the veracity of the claims for and against Mark and Marla, while also exploring where Marla’s story fit into popular misconceptions about modern art (thus the title), all of which Bar-Lev handles with a light touch.
Bar-Lev joined the Olmsteads just as the controversy over who authored Marla's paintings hit the airwaves. Almost overnight, the cherubic Marla went from a media and art celebrity in the New York who could sell her paintings for thousands of dollars to a pariah shunned by former friends and supporters. Her parents, Mark and Laura, were accused of exploiting Marla, either for her talent (if she indeed had any) or for unethically passing off Mark's paintings as Marla's and making tremendous sums of money in a short period of time (i.e. $300,000) that the Olmsteads claimed would be set aside for Marla's future.
With the help of a local artist, gallery owner, and family friend, Anthony Brunelli, Marla became a local celebrity with her own art show and adoring press clippings. Appearances on local and national television followed, but the adoration turned into doubt after the "Sixty Minutes" segment aired. The segment included an interview with a child psychologist who examined Marla's paintings and process (captured on hidden camera). At first, the psychologist praises the artwork, but after watching the hidden camera footage, comes to the conclusion that Marla was either being coached heavily by her father or wasn't the author of the paintings ascribed to her.
With serious doubts hanging over Marla and her family, Bar-Lev was left in an untenable situation. After following the Olmsteads for several months, Bar-Lev's objectivity was challenged by his sympathy for the Olmsteads' negative treatment they were experiencing from the local and national press, friends and neighbors, and art collectors who had purchased Marla's paintings under the belief that she was the sole author of her artwork. In an effort to control the damage to their reputations, the Olmsteads videotaped Marla as she painted and sold the resulting DVD to prospective art buyers to ally their concerns.
Eventually, Bar-Lev asked Mark and Laura for unlimited permission to record Marla while she painted. What he recorded didn't dispel his doubts about Marla's talent as a painter or Mark's possible involvement, forcing him to question Mark and Laura one last time about their roles in Marla's paintings. Mark's circular, apparently evasive answers are almost enough to indict him, but his reticence doesn't seem to extend to Laura, who emerges as a sympathetic figure who implicitly trusted Mark or choose the path of least resistance: willful ignorance.
If Bar-Lev makes a decision one way or another about the Olmsteads, he doesn't say so, at least not explicitly, instead letting audiences decide for themselves where exactly the truth lies. As doubtful as Bar-Lev ends up being, though, he always treats the Olmsteads with respect (and sometimes even compassion), mindful that the central subject of his documentary is a young girl who deserves compassion, either because she's been unjustifiably attacked, misunderstood, or because the adults in her life have exploited her for money and fame.
As compelling as Marla and her family’s story may be, Bar-Lev also explores the reasons for Marla’s surprising success. Bar-Lev zeroes in on our culture’s fascination with child prodigies who seem to appear almost magically in different artistic fields. With the help of Michael Kimmelman, an art critic for "The New York Times", Bar-Lev connects that fascination with child prodigies to the views about modern, non-representational art generally held by non-art lovers, summarized by the title, My Kid Could Paint That. With so much ground to cover, though, Bar-Lev can only go so far but gives Marla and her story just enough background to make My Kid Could Paint That a provocative, rewarding documentary, probably one of this year's best.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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by Mel Valentin on Oct 12, 2007