My Kid Could Paint That

In 2004, the art world was abuzz with a new sensation: a four-year-old girl in upstate New York named Marla Olmstead, whose abstract paintings were so sophisticated that many felt that a prodigy had just been discovered. After her paintings began selling for five figures apiece, many others began doubting their authenticity, with Marla's sometime painter father Mark suspected of polishing them up or even creating them from scratch.

Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev was there the whole time, filming the Olmsteads over the course of a year, from Marla's introduction, to the controversy spawned by a 60 Minutes II segment, to the complicated aftermath. What's most engaging about his documentary is how the fourth wall is broken – thanks to the guileless Marla, who doesn't know how to perform on camera (which becomes the crux of the argument over the authorship of her paintings), and to the degrees of closeness which the Olmsteads allowed Bar-Lev to have – so that the filmmaker himself becomes a part of the story.

The so-called "observer effect" is noted early in the film by the journalist who first broke the story on Marla, and it eventually becomes what My Kid Could Paint That is really about: how the act of observing itself changes the behavior of the observed. Self-reflexive documentaries may not always work, but for a film all about art and truth, it's a fine fit. Meanwhile, Bar-Lev, though he himself questions the father's involvement, takes pains to leave his film open-ended enough so that viewers can come to their own conclusions.

As for me, I believe the artwork is really Marla's: I've seen young children paint, and none have the concentration that Marla shows as she works – even if the paintings done on-camera don't, as some insist, stand up to the mature quality of those that are finished when only the parents are around.

Also, while non-artists frequently dismiss Jackson Pollock's dribble paintings or Mark Rothko's giant color fields as so easy that any fool could do it, let me tell you this: If you're not a real artist, you can't fake a painting, no matter how abstract. More to the point, the charming Marla Olmstead already displays the standoffishness, wry humor, and mood shifts of any good artist. But we may only really know in five years or so, when Marla – now seven as of this writing – enters puberty, and will be able to discuss her work and her life more articulately.