Large questions about artistic standards and the possibility of attaining truth are raised through the story of a single little girl in Amir Bar-Lev’s fascinating documentary. The four-year old child is Marla Olmstead of Binghamton, New York, who—according to her parents—joined her father Mark, an amateur painter, in his impromptu basement studio and produced, unassisted, abstract pieces so distinctive that they caught the eye of a professional artist who showed them in his gallery, where they won a following and buyers besides. Their prices eventually reached thousands, then tens of thousands.
Newspaper articles on the purported prodigy soon followed, including one in the New York Times, until Charlie Rose did a segment on Marla for “60 Minutes,” which questioned whether the child (who was photographed using hidden cameras) actually painted the works attributed to her or had been silently directed, or even supplanted, by her father. The media firestorm that followed, and the Olmsteads’ reaction to it, are covered in the film.
But “My Kid Could Paint That” goes beyond the surface narrative to tease provocatively at issues that go far beyond Marla’s story. By making himself a character in the piece, trying to unravel the mystery of the pictures’ creation, the director implicitly raises the question of his own shifting point of view, and how his choices as a filmmaker (as well as his intrusion into the unfolding drama) actually construct the documentary’s through-line and control its ultimate meaning—thereby bring the very nature of documentaries to the fore.
But as the title he’s chosen suggests, Bar-Lev goes further, implying that the difficulty of assessing the quality of abstract artwork—the lack of agreed-upon standards of excellence—points to the central question of whether it’s “art” at all, or something a mere child (or maybe a trained chimp) could do just as well as the most acclaimed practitioner.
Ben-Lev uses ordinary techniques to fashion his film. There’s the usual “fly-on-the-wall” footage of the family, with Marla and her little brother Zane coming across as darling kids and plenty of conversational moments with Mark and his wife Laura. There are interviews with friends, supporters, buyers, and art critics. There’s footage from the “60 Minutes” program. But he assembles the material intelligently to pose the central questions about genius, possible fraud, parental and media responsibility, the irrationality of the art market and even the fickleness of the public in such a way as to show that they have no easy answers.
The result is a film that’s a bit ragged around the edges technically, but makes up for the imperfections on that score with its engrossing content. “My Kid Could Paint That,” like the art it showcases, is subject to various interpretations, but it’s fascinating from any perspective.