Review of My Kid Could Paint That by Amir Bar-Lev
I loved this documentary. It has already garnered a spot in my best of for this year. This is a story about little Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old (now older) whose paintings have made her rich. It is also a story about fame, media, marketing, child prodigies, and abstract art.
When Marla was just three years old her father sat her down in front of a canvas and gave her some paint and a brush and let her do her thing. She continued to dabble with painting and at the age of four her father showed one of her paintings to a friend. That friend showed the painting to Anthony Brunelli, an artist and gallery owner. Anthony wasn’t told that a four-year-old had done the painting. When he learned the truth, he knew he had a story on his hands. Thus began the saga of Marla Olmstead.
After a front page treatment in the local Binghampton newspaper, the story took off nationally both in print and on TV. Marla became a celebrity and her paintings began selling for thousands of dollars. The media whirlwind came to a grinding halt, however, when a story about Marla on 60 Minutes questioned the authenticity of the art.
The controversy at the center of this film is whether or not Marla’s father Mark helped Marla with the paintings either through coaching or by doing some of the paintings himself. The ride that Marla nd her parents go through is a prime example of how our society and the media in general is quick to put people on a pedestal only to take delight in knocking that person back down. But this is not Brittney Spears we’re talking about here, this is a four year old girl.
To help prove that Marla did in fact do the paintings herself, the parents make a video of her doing a painting from start to finish. The painting is called Ocean. It should have put an end to the controversy, and it has in my mind. But for some reason the director still has doubts.
Some of the doubts are because when Marla is filmed by people other than her parents, the results are not so convincing. But they are overlooking a few important facts. First, Marla is smart enough to know that she is being asked to perform on demand. How many of us can do that? She paints in layers and the early layers are not representative of the whole. And not every attempt at creating something is successful. How many writers publish their first draft?
As for whether or not Marla is a child prodigy, I can’t say. The paintings are beautiful. Click here to see for yourself. My gut feeling is that Marla does have a special talent. One of the videos taken of her painting catches her totally focused on the painting. She is not just splashing paint on a canvas like Jackson Pollock; she is composing. Speaking of Jackson Pollock. There is another documentary about Pollock called Who the &%$#! is Jackson Pollock. I reviewed it here on this site. Click here to read that review. I recommend that you watch both of these as companion pieces.
I had two minor complaints about the film. First, I don’t understand why the filmmakers didn’t have other four years olds try to duplicate what Martha has done. They show a short segment where John Stossel from 20/20 tries this, so why couldn’t they do the same? Why didn’t they try to create a similar painting themselves? After all the movie is titled My Kid Could Paint That. Okay, so let me see for myself. I’m fairly confident that if I was given the same setup of canvas, paints, and brushes that I could slap together something presentable. Abstract art is in the eye of the beholder. My second complaint is along the same lines. At one point Marla is at a showing and she’s trying to get her father’s attention to tell him that her little brother Zane was responsible for doing one of the paintings. I’m not sure if it was one of the paintings in the show or not, but they never followed up on it. You never see the painting.
The interviews throughout the film are excellent, especially the ones with Michael Kimmelman, an art critic for the New York Times, and Anthony Brunelli. There are some interesting bonus features on the DVD, but director Amir decided against doing the audio commentary. I’m guessing that he had become too close to the family and didn’t feel comfortable talking about them for the commentary. The editor and Anthony Brunelli fill in for him and do a fine job. Definitely see this movie. And if you haven’t seen the Jackson Pollock film mentioned earlier, see that one as well.
Lastly, for Marla and her parents. I believe you. My next stop is your web site. I might even purchase a print. Best of luck to you all.