Much like Paranormal Activity when it first hit the film festival circuit, Fraud comes to us enigmatically—a found-footage narrative with no beginning or end credits. At first, you may be inclined to assume it’s another drama with a twist using the form as a matter of convenience, but then you wonder: how can they possibly hope to sell this thing with all the brand logos and familiar pop songs in the background? Is it a documentary? It’s being shown at AFI Fest as one. And yet the minimalist press kit offers no real answers except a reference to it being culled from YouTube footage—without saying whose, whether it’s been used out of context to create a whole new narrative, or how director Dean Fleischer-Camp can claim rights to any of it.
Like Dr. Manhattan bombarded by tachyons at the end of Watchmen, I’d almost forgotten the thrill of not knowing. In this line of work, by the time one actually sees a movie, numerous articles about the casting, trailer, and early social media reactions have already been logged, if not written by my own hand. Eventually I’m sure the jig will be up; maybe even by the time you read this. But for now, the title Fraud, it seems to me, might refer to more than just the subject matter.
Also, this is the first official still they released. It is of the only onscreen credit in the entire movie:
Fraud appears to be made up of the home movies of an unnamed family who are generic enough to be real but clean enough to potentially be actors, too. They’re compulsive shoppers, buying everything from a pogo stick to a rabbit to a U2 calendar on a whim, and also in massive debt. With collection agencies constantly calling them, they organize a yard sale to make some money, then promptly blow all of their new income at the mall. And they drink quite often (well, the parents, anyway. Not the two kids). Even more desperate than before, they start looking into the possibility of arson and insurance fraud.
It’s an abrasive thing to watch, not because of the characters but because everything is shot on a crappy consumer-grade camera. It’s filled with quick cuts and uses production sound (if indeed this project was staged, it’s a great example of how to be a creative storyteller with limited resources), and at only 52 minutes it’s arguably a stretch to call Fraud a feature. Ultimately you’ll feel like you’ve sat through a full movie by the end, and an extra 30 minutes might have been tough on the senses.
A larger point may be at work, as well. Fleischer-Camp frequently shows us displays of flags, Americana, and patriotic imagery (this footage is presented as being from 2012, our last presidential election year, so that could be coincidence), and it’s a choice that feels like it’s implicating the country as well as this one family. You can take that to mean their self-destructive behavior is what the country encourages, or that they’re a metaphor for big government with the wrong spending priorities. Because the characters are fairly blank canvases beyond their specific deeds, one can easily project allegory upon them. Is it intended? Like almost everything else about this movie, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. The presentation, if nothing else, is designed to let viewers draw their own conclusions and have personal reactions with no baggage. And that’s something critics and frequent cinephiles are likely to find more appealing than the average moviegoer, I suspect.
As of this writing, I give it 4 burritos. If it turns out to secretly be the next Blair Witch prequel or something, my opinion may turn.
Images: Brigade Marketing
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s actual weekend editor. Yes, for real. Unless his Twitter account is a total fake….