From the get-go, this achievement seems all the more remarkable because the footage Bar-Lev captures of Marla interacting with her younger brother Zane, her dad, and her mother Laura portrays her as an utterly normal child. She is shy and easily distracted, and she cannot or will not speak in complete sentences about her art works. Scenes showing her at work on new canvases involve a lot of squirting and some seemingly uncoordinated smearing but no apparent planning or coordination. Moreover, Bar-Lev is never able to capture her actually finishing something. Then the bottom opens up when Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes come in to do a feature that casts significant doubt on the notion that the paintings have really been made by the child herself.
Bar-Lev declares that he came to the Marla project as a believer. The Olmsteads give him full access to Marla and themselves. Mark loves the attention that Marla has garnered and is indignant at any insinuation that her work is a hoax. Laura has more mixed feelings, openly worried that Marla's notoriety will steal her childhood away. Still, she appeals to Bar-Lev to exonerate the Olmsteads from charges that her child's purported work has been at least carefully coached if not outright produced by Mark. This Bar-Lev is unable to do, for try as he might, his persistent camera can simply never capture the child completing anything.
In response to his failure to prove Marla a singular artist, Bar-Lev turns the camera on himself, on 60 Minutes and on the journalists who have inflated the bubble of a little girl's fame. Marla is most certainly an innocent. But everybody else has gotten something out of her story: a publication, a news broadcast, a documentary film. They made her, and even though Bar-Lev refuses to conclude directly that Mark painted her canvases, Bar-Lev and others unmake her. Isn't it all more than a little morally stained?
Along the way, inevitably, the film raises the thorny question of how we judge abstract art. Critic Michael Kimmelman addresses the underlying proposition directly: If a child can do it, isn't all of modern art a fraud? The answer, of course, is no. It isn't a fraud, even if a child could do it, though this particular child, Marla Olmstead, almost certainly has not. But articulating the standard is no easy proposition and certainly beyond the limited art education I have enjoyed. I do, however, take some comfort in the writing of art critic and Jackson Pollock advocate Clement Greenberg, who counseled viewers of abstract art to relax, to surrender expectations of 'meaning" and to let a painting's non-representational assemblage of form and color simply be. He comforted us that we were free to like or not like without fear of contradiction. I don't find those of Marla's paintings exhibited in the film particularly arresting. But others did, and despite the controversy over who really painted them, who is to say that the fans of Marla's paintings are wrong?