Film-Forward Review: MY KID COULD PAINT THAT

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Marla Olmstead, left, and her mother Laura
Photo: Mark & Laura Olmstead

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Produced & Directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
Director of Photography Matt Boyd, Nelson Hume & Bill Turnley.
Edited by John Walter & Michael Levine.
Music by Rondo Brothers.
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Country of Origin: USA. 83 min. Rated PG-13.
Special Features: Commentary. “Back to Binghamton” featurette. Michael Kimmelman on art. English, French, Spanish, Chinese & Thai subtitles.

Director Amir Bar-Lev was thrown for a loop in the middle production. For his documentary on modern art, he focused on the camera-shy painter, Marla Olmstead, all of four years of age. The media frenzy surrounding this art phenomenon began when Anthony Brunelli, owner of a Binghamton, New York, gallery contacted a local news reporter about the hometown girl’s premiere exhibition.

Soon after, The New York Times picked up on the story of an artist painting on the dining room table in diapers, and it gained worldwide traction. With a bit of showmanship, Brunelli boasts that she is “the most popular story in the world right now.” Her vibrant abstract works, painted in intricate broad strokes, soon earned her $300,000.

What drew Bar-Lev to Marla was the question of what her success means. Some see her ascent as a debunking of abstract painting as an art form; to others, Marla is a prodigy (in one scene Marla squirts paint tubes while Mozart plays on the soundtrack).

But from the film’s start, puzzlements emerge, if not red flags – media savvy or just plain shy, Marla refuses to talk about her work. And during one interview, the girl’s mother, Laura, explains how she limits the media access to her daughter. The exchange is conducted while Laura drives her car, conveniently not having to look the interviewer in the eye. (Then again, it may be nothing more than a red herring.)

This lays the groundwork for a bombshell: Charlie Rose’s report, or exposé, of Marla on 60 Minutes II, which questions the authenticity of her works, causes the news coverage surrounding the girl to change completely. Sales of her paintings come to a halt, and now Marla’s parents need the director, who has already spent considerable time in their household, and this film for exoneration. (Bar-Lev fully acknowledges partaking in the media circus, given that he very much plays a role in his film.)

The parents impressively bear much grace under scrutiny. This savvy all-American couple in their late thirties will upturn any stereotype of a rust-belt working-class couple. A dental assistant, Laura, with bobbed blond hairstyle à la mode, and the boyish Mark, a manger at a Frito Lay factory, could easily be yet another couple in downtown New York.

My Kid Could Paint That is a welcome return to ambiguity in the documentary, while posing perhaps the year’s most intriguing mystery, even more so than last year’s diverting examination of art-world snobbery, Who the $#%& is Jackson Pollock? Even if only two films make up this exclusive subgenre (art-world exposé/mystery?), it would suffice.
October 5, 2007

DVD Extras: The insightful commentary by Brunelli and film editor John Walter covers everything from the ethics of documentary filmmaking to their own opinions on the controversy surrounding Marla Olmstead. Both fully back the parents. (Perhaps Bar-Lev’s absence infers that the director would rather have the film speak for itself than offer his own opinions.) The “Back to Binghamton” extra includes, besides deleted scenes and outtakes, the Q and A after the film's premiere in the Olmsteads’ hometown, where journalist Elizabeth Cohen reads a letter by Laura, pointedly directed towards Bar-Lev. In his extended interview, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman offers further comments on the art world – “The beauty of art is that it’s open-ended,” which also could apply to this film. Kent Turner
March 15, 2008



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