In 2004, a new prodigy stunned the art world when the New York Times declared that her first works could hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside masterpieces of modern and abstract painting. But the work of Marla Olmstead opened new questions about the validity of the genre in which she worked. Her age - 4 years old - was proof for anyone who had ever looked at a Pollack and harrumphed "My Kid Could Paint That."
Director Amir Bar-Lev sure picked an explosive documentary subject in Marla Olmstead. This little girl not only raised questions about the value of abstract art, but in the hand that collectors, gallery owners, critics and the media play in escalating or debunking its worth. Add to that a house divided and a '60 Minutes' program that called Marla's authorship into question and Bar-Lev's got a heck of a canvas to worth with.
Little Marla clearly loves to work with paint but has no deep insights to share about her creations, leading to speculation of spiritual intervention by those who would analyze her work. Dad Mark, whose hobby inspired his daughter, is enervated by the attention her work brings while mom Laura is more cautious, wanting to shield her daughter from becoming the next big thing that fizzles out. When Marla's work goes from fetching $250 at a local coffee shop to tens of thousands at a New York gallery, media attention becomes fierce. Bar-Lev even captures the Olmstead's younger son cottoning on to the hype, telling the camera about how he dreamed of painting when in his mummy's tummy. The family dynamics alone are quietly intense.
"My Kid Could Paint That" escalates when Mark and Laura watch the completed '60 Minutes' segment in which their daughter was filmed creating a painting which a psychologist declares nothing that any kid Marla's age could have produced. Sucker-punched by what they've heard, Mark insists he hasn't helped or shaped his daughter's works in any way (in damning voiceover, he's heard 'directing' her on the '60 Minutes' tape) while mom Laura tears up at the injustice of the piece. They agree to let Bar-Lev try to 'prove' that Marla was indeed the author of her previous, heralded, works.
Ironically, this act alone influences the desirability of the ensuing work, 'Ocean,' when we witness a gallery owner steer an avid Marla collector away from the painting that pleases her by the documented one more apt to gain in value. After much mud slinging, Marla is on an upswing once again.
Bar-Lev presents many questions, but lets his audience make up their own minds. It is indeed fascinating to see what this babe has produced - some truly beautiful, assured pieces of art - and Bar-Lev's document of her working on a work more admired than the one she created for the highly rated news magazine is a fascinating account of an artist at work. Side by side, the two pieces whose creation was filmed are clearly produced from the same hand. A late collage of Marla's work is quite stunning.
"My Kid Could Paint That" raises all kinds of questions and answers few, but I doubt any viewer could walk away without opinion. It's a well-structured, thought-provoking, even suspenseful piece of work.
Robin gives "My Kid Could Paint That" a B+.
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