When 4-year-old Marla Olmstead made headlines for her extraordinary abstract paintings there were basically two reactions: awe or a roll of the eyes. The awe was well covered by the media. Beginning with a simple column in her local Binghamton, N.Y., paper and growing to feature stories in the New York Times and across the network news, Marla became an instant celebrity and labeled a child prodigy. But as amazing as her talent seemed, it’s the more skeptical reaction that makes My Kid Could Paint That so engrossing.
Director Amir Bar-Lev uses Marla’s success as an introduction to the perplexing realities of contemporary art. In other words, how exactly does a preschooler’s finger painting constitute high art—and a five-figure sticker price? For the first 40 minutes of the film, this case study—supported, for instance, by archival footage of a donkey painting with its tail, juxtaposed with Jackson Pollack spilling paint on a canvas—gets kicked around by critics and collectors alike. Marla’s parents offer the best reality check, expressing sincere shock at their daughter’s meteoric rise.
Then an unexpected twist occurs: The collective fawning subsides when a “60 Minutes” piece pointedly calls into question the authenticity of Marla’s paintings. Charlie Rose essentially labels the Olmstead family frauds on national television, and a film that started as an intriguing examination of modern art evolves into an unexpected, equally absorbing scandal.
Part of the reason the storytelling shift seems so dramatic is that Bar-Lev himself gets blindsided as much as anyone. The family turns to the director for vindication—they believe his footage will prove Marla worked alone—but Bar-Lev thinks “60 Minutes” may have actually gotten things right. He spends the second half of the film grasping for the truth, re-evaluating Marla’s work and awkwardly confronting her parents with his suspicions.
Bar-Lev’s insertion to the storyline feels like an odd fit at first—perhaps a little narcissistic—but by the end things are so muddled it’s understandable. In fact, one pundit points out that My Kid Could Paint That isn’t necessarily a film about a child—it’s about the adults, Bar-Lev included, around her. And whether they’re running the art world, part of the media or parenting, those dubious adults make for one memorable film.