Regardless of whether she’s a wunderkind, a hoax or just a 4-year-old with an eye for a color scheme, Marla Olmstead — or at least her whirlwind career — makes for fascinating material in “My Kid Could Paint That.” While you wish that director Amir Bar-Lev (“Fighter”) possessed a bolder palette when presenting his adult subjects, he’s otherwise made a bang-up documentary about what constitutes art, genius and exploitation.
It begins as a human-interest portrait of a “prodigy.” Marla began painting at the age of 2 in the Binghamton, N.Y., home she shares with parents Mark and Laura and brother Zane. Her sophisticated-looking abstract creations hung in a coffeehouse, then a gallery and soon a New York Times story prompted collector frenzy. Marla’s canvases sold for five figures apiece.
The story enters mystery terrain, however, when “60 Minutes” suggests Marla had help from Mark, an amateur artist with a liking for limelight. Suddenly, the “piccolo Pollock” is “Willem de Frauding.” Sales stop.
Mark and Laura vehemently deny the accusations (and Laura, at least, appears to have had no hand in any fraud that might have occurred). But while they expect to receive vindication from Bar-Lev, whom they’ve grown to trust during the filming process, Bar-Lev has doubts.
Bar-Lev isn’t hard-hitting. While he acknowledges that the situation looks murky, he appears to have let his fondness for the likable Olmsteads soften his approach.
Yet this movie triumphs on so many other levels that you forgive its lack of investigative punch.
Enhanced by commentary from New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, the film is, for starters, an astute exploration of art, hype and the credibility problem that plagues abstract art. Binghamton reporter Elizabeth Cohen, meanwhile, keenly observes how Marla has been exploited from all sides.
The film also touches on adults’ fascination with gifted kids. And it succeeds as a portrait of a family experiencing a sensational version of the American obsession with fame, money and superachievement.</p>
As for Marla herself, she comes across as a talented but normal kid who is uninterested in discussing technique and unaware of the controversy she’s generated. On that note, the image of pint-size Marla eating a cookie at her gallery reception perfectly sums things up. However wrong it may be to spotlight a 4-year-old, her story’s a winner.
My Kid Could Paint That ***
Starring Michael Kimmelman, Elizabeth Cohen, Laura, Mark, Marla Olmstead
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes