A full 238 days after its US release, 107 days after its Australian release, and—perhaps most importantly—some 207 days after it leaked online, where many of its core audience spends the majority of their free time, Catfish, a film that tackles issues of identity, duplicity and secrecy in the age of social media, is being released in New Zealand. (It enjoyed what were by all reports a couple of very successful screenings in the World Cinema Showcase, but that’s not the same as a general release.)

Directed by first-time filmmakers Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost, the film documents what unfolds when Ariel’s younger brother Yaniv “Nev” Shulman, a twenty-something New York photographer, begins a friendship with an eight-year-old girl from rural Michigan called Abby after she paints one of his photos and sends it to him. Nev adds Abby and her extended family and friends on Facebook, and begins an intense online romance (via Facebook, phone calls, and gchat) with Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister, Megan. The trio, cameras in hand, travels to Michigan to meet Abby, her mother Angela, and Megan. You should probably stop reading after this paragraph if you haven’t yet seen it because it’s really hard to talk about without revealing at least a little bit of its plot, but suffice it to say that the mounting tension reaches a tremendous, sustained crescendo—and that this is where the film really begins to explore what social networking does to us as individuals.

Though its trailer might hint at fiction, the film is not a hoax: everything you see on screen really happened, and all the people who appear in it are real. Parts of it may have been creatively edited, and I’ve read reports that certain reaction scenes (i.e., ones where Nev and his filmmakers react to information gleaned from online profiles and messages) were re-staged and shot again in order to better fit the suspenseful atmosphere—but this is hardly the same thing as faking an entire film.

In his wrongly dismissive two-star review in the Herald, Peter Calder argues that the film is “witless, smug, and faintly sickening.” (He also uses the phrase “cyber-romance,” a prefix not used in earnest to describe online activity since about 1998.) The only part of his opinion I can agree with is the middle bit: for all its exploration of the psychological and sociological effects new technologies, Nev makes sure the film focuses as often as possible on his perfect teeth and cute-as-a-button dimples. Calder continues, revealing his discomfort with the film’s underlying narrative: “Their discoveries become the pretext for a sustained exercise in voyeurism that might be less sickly if the film were chronicling anything worth staring at…” The problem here is that what the film uncovers, while it may be uncomfortable to think about, is absolutely, undeniably “worth staring at.” Just because it’s a bit unseemly and perhaps difficult to confront doesn’t make it unworthy of attention. The central story is, in fact, incredibly, painfully sad, and shows the wonderful escapist possibilities afforded by virtual identities—and the explanation of the title in the penultimate scene is wonderfully cathartic.

Not only is this one of the best documentaries in recent memory, it’s also one of the best thrillers—and it’s made all the more suspenseful because it’s (almost entirely) factual, as one of its trailers promises: “Not based on a true story. Not inspired by true events. Just true.”

Catfish is in cinemas now.