One of the buzz movies at the Sundance Festival, My Kid Could Paint That is the kind of film that gives documentaries a good name. What doc-makers choose to show or not makes it the most manipulative genre out there. To his moral credit, director Amir Bar-Lev’s picture scrupulously explores both sides of its story. But it also ramps up the entertainment quotient when, midway through, it becomes something he never set out to make. Following the case of four-year-old Marla Olmstead from New York, who appears to be blessed with an astonishing knack for abstract expressionist painting, it flips on a switch when a news programme accuses Marla’s parents Mark and Laura of pulling a fast one (while Bar-Lev’s camera whirs in their faces). Could someone else be behind Marla’s daubings?
The answer may seem blindingly obvious – like, duh, how could a four-year-old possibly be hailed as the next Jackson Pollock? – but Bar-Lev’s meaty inquisition doesn’t simply zoom in on the parents’ potential guilt and charlatanism. It digs deep into the whole concept of what qualifies as great modern art, who buys the stuff and why? It’s heady, compelling brain-food, with some useful talking heads debunking and conjecturing, while the Olmsteads themselves are the most riveting movie family you’ll see this year. The film’s rife with priceless, sweaty-palmed moments like a scene where Marla blurts, “But Zane painted the green one!” as daddy looks on stricken.
Everyone’s favourite sham theory about modern art is that a chimp could do it (cue a scene where a critic chin-scratches over doodles by man’s closest cousin). Which is why the idea of an infant painting-prodigy who churns out canvases that go for thousands is fuel to the art-world-con fire. But it’s also a genuine human-interest story, as shown by the fan-flaming media attention. In the end, though, whether Marla is a staggering talent, or just a sweet, finger-painting tyke exploited by her greedy parents, is left for the viewer to decide. Such subtle brush-work deserves applause.