When Marla Olmstead was three-years-old, she asked her father—an amateur painter—for a brush, paint, and canvas. He lifted her up on the dining room table and she set to work swirling colors for an abstract piece without a single stick figure. By four, Marla’s work had gone from the family room to a coffeeshop to her own gallery show and on the cusp of her fifth birthday, the tot had racked up a New York Times cover feature and over $300,000 in sales. “It’s a perfect story,” smiled gallery owner Anthony Brunelli. Marla, her two-year-old brother Zane, and parents Mark and Laura—a night manager at Frito Lay and a dental assistant—not only acted like the all-American family, but were so blondely attractive they could have starred in Gap ads. (And Gap asked.)
Director Amir Bar-Lev’s standout documentary follows Marla’s rise to stardom with its limosines and Good Morning America appearances, trying to answer an incendiary question: What’s the real worth of modern art? Who hasn’t looked at a canvas with squiggles and felt either ashamed that they didn’t get it or outraged that others pretend to? Is the buyer who spent $72.8 million in May for a minimalist Rothko an aesthete or a sucker?
“There’s this large idea out there that abstract art and modern art in general has no standards, no truths. That if a child could do it, it pulls the veil off this con game,” says New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, whose book The Accidental Masterpiece is the most literate and engaging dissection of good art I’ve ever read. (Bar-Lev’s archival footage duly digs out hilarious footage of chimps smearing oil paint and horses brushing canvases with their tails.) Adds Kimmelman, “Modern art does still tell a story, but now the story is about the artist.” So were Marla’s paintings expensive because they themselves elicited an emotional response, or was the emotional response inextricably linked to her youth? Her admirers veered towards the latter, gushing over the paintings’ innocence and freedom. As for the budding Picasso herself, her only response about the meaning of her work is a dismissive “Nothing, nothing,” like a jaded tabloid star.
Just as Bar-Lev’s documentary is settling into a fascinating exploration of art, creativity, and family dynamics (Marla’s overshadowed baby brother Zane has some heart-tugging moments as he tries to get the cameraman’s attention by claiming he started painting in his “mommy’s tummy”), the film takes an unexpected right hook. 60 Minutes has devoted an episode to Marla’s talents, and Bar-Lev records parents Mark and Laura nestling up on the couch to watch their latest and greatest profile. But as local reporter Elizabeth Cohen predicted, a story can only exist so long before the media gets restless and changes its arc. Instead of a puff piece, Charlie Rose pulls out an expert who indicts the family as frauds prodding their daughter to fame, which devastates the protective Laura who has already feared she wasn’t doing enough to guard her daughter’s childhood. Rose’s most damning evidence is that Marla refuses to paint on camera, like a magician who won’t be filmed. Mark may be wielding the brush. And if he is, are the paintings still good?
Before first grade, Marla’s gone from a star to a has been. The once-beloved family is flooded with death threats from people who pray that Mark gets imprisoned and raped. Twistedly, the outrage is the strongest argument that modern art still matters—if it didn’t, why the violence? But as Mark and Laura are determined to clear their reputation, Bar-Lev’s role shifts. He’s no longer a neutral observer, but the family’s last shot at redemption. Now, the pressure’s on him to draw his own line between protecting Marla and his own artistic integrity. Does pure art even exist? “All art is in some way a lie . . . your documentary on some levels is going to be a lie like you’re capturing a version of things,” advises Kimmelman, who then inadvertently underscores his point by offering to repeat his line for Bar-Lev’s camera for added clarity and emphasis. When even spoken truths aren’t natural, Bar-Lev finds himself tongue-tied, and in a mesmerizing silent sequence, simply flashes picture after picture of Marla’s work onscreen leaving us to untangle the knots