Film review: My Kid Could Paint That

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2007 9:03 a.m. MST

Painter Marla Olmstead could be the most fascinating subject seen in any documentary this year. She's an absolute charmer who captivates every time she simply smiles or says anything.

And at the time most of "My Kid Could Paint That" was shot, Olmstead was 4 years old.

Similarly, Amir Bar-Lev's feature-filmmaking debut is easily one of the most fascinating documentaries you'll see all year. Seemingly a straight-forward portrait of Olmstead, it slowly evolves into a deeper, more substantive think piece that explores the concepts of child exploitation and media responsibility, as well as the meaning of modern art.

It begins as something simpler. Bar-Lev found local newspaper stories about Olmstead, an upstate New York youngster whose colorful works (titled with such childlike monikers as "Flower") that invoked comparisons to abstract expressionist legends like Jackson Pollock.

As Bar-Lev shows, Marla's parents, Mark and Laura, were thrilled at the attention but then got caught up in the media hype and the blitz of publicity, as suddenly their daughter's paintings started selling for thousands of dollars. (Early sales of Olmstead's paintings netted a $300,000 college fund for the girl and her younger brother, Zane.)

But the fame was short-lived, as questions arose as to whether Mark, an amateur artist in his own right, was coaching Marla or influencing her painting in any way.

Bar-Lev never comes to a definite conclusion in that regard, but he does capture some revealing moments. The clearly conflicted Laura almost seems relieved when Charlie Rose's "60 Minutes II" investigation in 2005 all but calls Marla's art a fraud.

And Bar-Lev is not afraid to point an accusatory finger at himself — nor at the local reporter (Elizabeth Cohen), who helped "discover" Marla, or at the New York Times art critic (Michael Kimmelman), who wrote about her work as well.

"My Kid Could Paint That" is rated PG-13 for strong profane language and images (including artwork displaying the so-called "R-rated" curse word), other suggestive language and references, and glimpses of nude photos and artwork. Running time: 83 minutes.


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