Did Marla Do It?
Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev became fascinated with the prodigy painter when he read about Marla and her family in a New York Times article.
The Olmsteads are an appealing two-kid-family that fits the all American profile: Laura, the pretty mom, works as a dental assistant. Mark, the handsome dad, is night shift manager of a Fritos factory and an amateur painter. Marla, the eldest child, began painting in imitation of her father. Marla's younger brother Zane boasts that he began painting at a younger age than his sister did.
But Zane didn't follow Marla to the fame that began when a family friend hung one of her canvasses in his cafe, and someone bought it, and a local journalist specializing in family and parenting issues wrote about it, and introduced the world to the child artist.
When Marla had her first gallery show, media from around the world swept in to cover the talented little girl and her attractive family.
Marla Needs a Champion
Marla's rise to fame was meteoric. Her paintings were compared to those of acclaimed abstract artists Jackson Pollack and Pablo Picasso, and her canvasses flew off the gallery walls and landed in the private caches of sophisticated art collectors and novices who were prompted to buy--at least in part--by the amazing story of Marla the art phenom.
But Marla's story had a downslide, and it came quite quickly when her celebrity and success attracted closer scrutiny. In a news report on Sixty Minutes, art experts and child psychologists declared their doubts that she had single-handedly created her paintings--and the doubted prodigy's gallery values crashed.
Of course, Marla was oblivious to the allegations of misrepresentation and fraud, and she continued to paint--but it was a painful and nerve wracking period for her parents, who declared that Marla's canvasses were entirely her own creation and that they were innocent of instructing her about when and what to paint.
By the time Amir Bar-Lev arrived on the scene, the Olmsteads were hoping someone could and would champion their child and their cause. Hoping for vindication, they gave Bar-Lev complete access to their home and to their daily life.
After having spent months filming the adorable Marla and doting Olmsteads, speaking commenting art experts and child psychologists, as well as gallery owners and patrons who purchased Marla's work, Bar-Lev doesn't pretend to have an answer to the $300,000 did-she-or-didn't-she question that drives the film. Nor does he feel compelled to find one.
For Bar-Lev, a Brown University 1994 graduate with double majors in Film and Religious Studies, My Kid Could Paint That represents more important inquiries into existential and universal issues, such as what is the nature of art and creativity? Of truth and reality? And just what role do perceptions and misconceptions play in whipping current events into whirlwinds.
Indeed, Bar-Lev uses the story of Marla as the launch pad for these lofty questions, and then delves deeply into them. He presents Marla as an innocent who's caught in the middle of a media frenzy, a victim of the circumstance of perception.
What keeps Bar-Lev's film from being another example of media exploitation of Marla and her story is his very evident respect for and sensitivity towards his subjects. His philosophical focus and ethic considerations are laudable. My Kid Could Paint That opens theatrically on October 5 in select markets. If you're not able to see it in a theater, watch for it on DVD. It is a must-see.