Marla Olmstead, an artist in upstate Binghamton, New York, paints big, complex, color-splashed, assertive abstract pictures that sell for tens of thousands of dollars to smitten collectors. She is also a child. Marla is all of 7 years old now, and was even younger three years ago when her media-made fame as a prodigy certified by the Today show and Good Morning America morphed into media-made controversy about the authenticity of her work. Was the shy, picture-cute artist producing the work herself? (A 60 Minutes report suggested otherwise.) Was her father, an art hobbyist, assisting his daughter for his own gain and for the glamour of limos and gallery openings? Is Marla a genius or a fraud — and with abstract art, who can tell one extreme from the other?
My Kid Could Paint That doesn’t provide definitive answers. But absence of resolution only adds to the resonance of this astute documentary, a personal work of nonfiction as layered with eye-of-the-beholder meaning as Marla’s canvases. Amir Bar-Lev’s engrossing film is as much about the stubborn ambiguities of art, truth, meaning, and relationships as it is about the authenticity of the Olmstead oeuvre. Bar-Lev likes his attractive subjects, and wants to believe them as much as they want him to be their vindicator. (After 60 Minutes, sales fell off.) He wants to understand the cultural value placed on prodigies, and to analyze the particular ability of abstract art to bug the hell out of skeptics. (New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman provides eloquent onscreen commentary on that front.)
And, of course, Bar-Lev wants to make his own art, too — this movie which is in turn predicated on the relationship of trust he first established with his subjects. What if that relationship is changed by doubt? How complicit is he, the journalist, in affecting the reputation and future of a little girl? The storyteller puts himself into the story and acknowledges his part in the drama with the kind of spiky authorial self-awareness made famous by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. And by the way, the approach also makes for a better story. A-