She watched her dad paint, picked up a brush, and did her own thing. Pretty soon, the abstract canvases of 4-year-old Marla Olmstead were on the walls of a local Binghamton cafe, then a gallery. The press picked up her scent, Jane Pauley wanted her, "Inside Edition" phoned, NPR followed suit. Within the space of a year, an Olmstead original went from $250 to $15,000.
After the money started rolling in, amused skepticism surrounding the legitimacy of contemporary art (if a kid can do this, why is Jackson Pollock a genius?) climaxed with an accusatory piece on "60 Minutes" intimating that the Olmstead phenomenon was a fraud: Were the paintings really coming from dad?
Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev approached Marla's parents early in their daughter's wildfire ascent, with the hope of using Marla's story to open up a discussion about the parameters and problems of modern art. Once the paintings' authenticity came under suspicion, however, Bar-Lev's agenda took a turn, and his amicable alliance with his subjects became a liability to his responsibilities as a documentarian.
What he ended up with was this mysterious, gripping meta-documentary, a movie that reflects upon the thorny, unpredictable process of capturing a real-life story on film at the same time it's trying to figure out what the story is. "My Kid" swirls with the impassioned testimony of real-life characters who consistently play against type: an erudite hometown reporter (an admirably clear-headed Elizabeth Cohen), the unstuffy big-city art critic (Michael Kimmelman), the All-American artist with the Harold Hill sales pitch (Anthony Brunelli).
Most discomfiting of all are Marla's ever-regretful parents, Marc and Laura Olmstead. In the film's agonizing denouement, the Olmsteads stare into the filmmaker's camera and realize that the one person they had looked to as their vindicator intends to tighten the screws of public doubt.
It's worse than watching paint dry. It's watching the life drain from the faces of once vibrant, well-intended folks whose only sin may be that they never hired an image consultant.
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
3 1/2 stars
Amir Bar-Lev's tantalizing documentary traces the roller-coaster fame of a 4-year-old abstract painter.
Running time: 1:23
Rated PG-13 (language).