My Kid Could Paint That

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This review was written for the festival screening of "My Kid Could Paint That."

PARK CITY -- A 4-year-old girl who does world-class abstract paintings and becomes an international celebrity seems like a ripe subject for a penetrating documentary about the nature of art. However, "My Kid Could Paint That" is not that film. Instead, director Amir Bar-Lev stumbled on a juicier story about whether the young artist might not be the sole creator of her work. Picked up for distribution at Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics, the film and the controversy should generate interest at the boxoffice, but it's more a story about media manipulation and parental responsibility than art.

After a local reporter broke the story and the New York Times picked it up, Bar-Lev went to the Binghampton, N.Y., home of Marla Olmstead in fall 2004 hoping to make a film about the phenomenon. He promised the girl's parents, Laura and Mark Olmstead, that his documentary would capture a deeper truth for Marla to have when she was older. They agreed and invited him into their home for the next year, where he befriended Marla and became a fixture in the household.

Marla was shy but seemed like a normal kid. She had started painting at 2 when her father put a brush in her hands and set her on the dining room table in a diaper. She produced a series of colorful paintings that were compared to the work of Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists. Not surprisingly, she had nothing to say about the meaning of her art, or anything else for that matter. She clearly was not going to sustain a film on her own.

Then, in February 2005, "60 Minutes" aired a report suggesting that Marla may have had help with the paintings. Sales of her work ($300,000 to date) came to a halt, and the Olmsteads received hate mail and accusations. They turned to Ben-Lev hoping for vindication. They also filmed their own video of Marla creating one of her works.

Laura, a dental assistant, and Mark, a night manager in a Frito-Lay plant, seem like concerned, attentive parents. They say they didn't pursue this whole thing, that it came to them. Mark is an amateur realist painter, and the suggestion -- which they adamantly and tearfully deny -- is that he helped Marla with her paintings.

Sniffing a good tabloid story, the media piled on, with the New York Post referring to the girl as Willem de Frauding. Calmer voices prevail in the film, and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman says people will choose to accept a story because it conforms to how they see it. And because many people regard abstract art as a put-on or a racket, they are more than happy to see the Marla affair as a hoax.

Left with the responsibility of clearing the family's name, Ben-Lev is put in an awkward position for a supposedly objective documentary filmmaker. He is forced to interject himself into the film and admit that he, too, has doubts about the veracity of the paintings.

Skillfully shot and edited, this might not be the film Ben-Lev set out to make. There is little discussion of the quality of the work, other than the fact that people buy it. Marla's original gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, testifies to her brilliance, but he obviously has a vested interest. So the film is less concerned with the question of whether my kid could paint that than whether my kid could sell that.

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
Sony Pictures Classics
Credits:
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Producer: Amir Bar-Lev
Executive producer: John Battsek
Directors of photography: Matt Boyd, Nelson Hume, Bill Turnley
Music: Rondo Brothers
Editors: John Walter, Michael Levine
Running time -- 81 minutes
No MPAA rating

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