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Four year old Marla Olmstead from Binghamton, New York became the sensation of the art world for her abstract artwork, which have sold for thousands of dollars per piece. The showing of her work started off as a lark, but when the paintings sold without the buyers knowing who the artist was, the media began to run with the story. Through it all, Marla's parents, Mark Olmstead and Laura Olmstead, want to be grounded in what is best for their daughter while exposing her to whatever positive may come from the experience. But some negative and big name media also surfaces, some questioning whether Marla is the real artist behind the work, and some questioning exposing a four year old to such infamy. Regardless, the fact of this art selling brings up the legitimacy of abstract art being quantified as "quality", especially if a four year old can produce it but can't express the emotions or rationale behind its creation. Or is art truly in the eyes of the beholder? Regardless, money, in the ... Written by
Human Interest Story or Hoax? We May Never Know....
Meet Marla Olmstead, a cute, seemingly normal 4-year-old girl. Then see the paintings Marla creates, hailed by the art world as the works of a prodigy abstract artist. Now meet Amir Bar-Lev, documentary filmmaker so fascinated by Marla's story that he decides to make a movie about it. Then along comes a "60 Minutes" investigative report that throws into question the claim that Marla alone is responsible for her paintings, and Bar-Lev's film switches gears mid-stream. Suddenly, he's begging the parents of this little girl to prove to him that their story is legitimate, so that his film won't end up being one more expose declaiming the family as frauds.
This ambiguous and disquieting film never answers the central question: are Marla's works her's alone, or did she receive "help" from her father or possibly, as some suggest, the bitter art gallery owner who takes credit for discovering her? Bar-Lev tries his best to gather evidence to support the Olmsteads' claims, but that evidence never materializes. The kind of painting Marla does when she's being filmed is the type that any four year old would do; all of her paintings are "finished" off camera. And Marla herself just doesn't act like a prodigy in the way of other child prodigies. Bar-Lev can't even get her to talk about her paintings, and she seems detached not only from the artworks but from everything else around her. Only once do the Olmsteads themselves film Marla creating a painting from start to finish, and they use this painting to prove to the world that they're not making their story up. But virtually everyone but the Olmsteads themselves seem to think that this painting looks very different from the finished ones hanging in art galleries and selling for thousands of dollars.
Whatever the true story is, the film leaves the distinct impression that something is amiss with this seemingly all-American family. The dad seems cagey; the mom seems to be working overtime to convince herself that everything is normal. A telling interview with the two parents that closes the film suggests that the couple may not be completely happy with one another -- their body language and lack of eye contact with one another conveys that. One senses that the dad is seeing some of his own dreams for fame realized through his daughter; the mom seems to be going against the maternal instincts that are telling her enough is enough. As objective as Bar-Lev tries to be, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the Olmsteads (or at least Mark Olmstead, the father) is bamboozling (or at least trying to bamboozle) everyone, possibly even his wife.
"My Kid Could Paint That" is not the kind of documentary that pursues answers to the questions it raises. Bar-Lev seems almost too cautious not to offend anyone for his film to have any real bite. But the questions it does raise are interesting ones: what is the validity of abstract art? Does the age of the artist have an impact on the art's quality? Would Marla's paintings have received as much attention and acclaim if they were produced by an adult, or in buying Marla's paintings, are people really buying a piece of Marla?
I felt a little guilty watching this film, because I wanted the set up to be a fraud from the start. I don't know why that is, and I wonder if as I watched the film this attitude made me see the story I wanted to see rather than the story as it actually was. But if I can be accused of that, then so can Bar-Lev, and so can the Olmsteads themselves, who, whether their story is true or not, put it before the world and packaged it for maximum effect.
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