Another riveting documentary from my files. If any of you hope to have a genius artist baby in the future you’ll want to watch this doc.
My Kid Could Paint That is a 2007 documentary film by director Amir Bar-Lev (who also directed 2000’s Fighter). The movie follows the early artistic career of Marla Olmstead, a young girl from Binghamton, NY who gains fame first as a child prodigy painter of abstract art, and then becomes the subject of controversy concerning whether she truly completed the paintings herself or did so with her parents’ assistance and/or direction. The film was bought by Sony Pictures Classics in 2007 after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Marla’s father, an amateur painter, describes how Marla watches him paint, wants to help, and is given her own canvas and supplies.
A friend asks to hang Marla’s pictures in his coffee shop and is surprised when people ask to buy them. A local newspaper reporter, Elizabeth Cohen, writes a piece about Marla, after first asking her parents if they really want her to do so. Cohen’s story is picked up by the New York Times, and Marla becomes a media celebrity, with appearances on television and shows at galleries in New York and Los Angeles. Sales of her work earn over $300,000. The tone of the documentary turns with a scene of Marla’s parents watching a February 2005 report by CBS News’ 60 Minutes II that questions whether Marla painted the works attributed to her. 60 Minutes enlisted the help of Ellen Winner, a child psychologist who studies cognition in the arts and gifted children.
Seeing video images of some of the paintings attributed to Marla, Winner initially reacts positively, stating: “It’s absolutely beautiful. You could slip it into the Museum of Modern Art and absolutely get away with it.” The 60 Minutes reporter, Charlie Rose, then shows Winner what he describes as “50 minutes of videotape shot by us and by Marla’s parents.” After seeing this footage, Winner states: “This is eye-opening to me, to see her actually painting.” Rose asks her how this is “eye-opening.” Winner responds: “Because she’s not doing anything that a normal child wouldn’t do. She’s just kind of slowly pushing the paint around.” Rose then states that after “our interview,” the Olmsteads agreed to permit CBS crews to set-up a hidden camera in their home to tape their daughter painting a single piece in five hours over the course of a month. When Winner reviewed the tapes, the psychologist said, “I saw no evidence that she was a child prodigy in painting. I saw a normal, charming, adorable child painting the way preschool children paint, except that she had a coach that kept her going.” Winner also indicated that the painting created before CBS’s hidden camera looked “less polished than some of Marla’s previous works.” Asked to explain the difference, Winner states: “I can only speculate. I don’t see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished looking paintings, because they look like a different painter. Either somebody else painted them start to finish, or somebody else doctored them up. Or, Marla just miraculously paints in a completely different way than we see on her home video.” Marla’s parents film her creating a second work, Ocean, but Bar-Lev is not fully convinced. A couple are shown considering the purchase of Ocean. The woman complains that Ocean does not look like the other works by Marla.
They buy it anyway. In a slide show, Bar-Lev compares Ocean with the 60 Minutes piece and then with several other works attributed to Marla. Viewers are left to make their own judgments. The film also raises questions about the nature of art, especially abstract expressionism, the media’s habit of building up the subject of a story and then tearing the subject down in its insatiable need to fill space; and the nature of the documentary process.