The stitched-together fest-friendly frustrations of “Fraud”

Dean Fleischer-Camp’s controversial “found footage” drama comes to the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Dean Fleischer-Camp’s controversial “found footage” drama comes to the Wisconsin Film Festival.

This review is part of our preview coverage of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Dean Fleischer-Camp got his start as a director with the trilogy of inarguably adorable Marcel The Shell With Shoes On shorts, a collaboration with his then-wife Jenny Slate, but on his own he gravitates towards a high-concept strain of avant-garde trouble-making. He’s worked on projects with alternative comedy staples including Brody Stevens, Jon Glaser, and, most tellingly, Comedy Central’s enfant terrible prankster Nathan Fielder, so the formal twists and turns of his not-a-short-not-quite-a-feature Fraud, which screens twice at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival, should come as no surprise.

Taken at face value, Fraud is a 52-minute “found footage” film that tells the story of a North Carolina family who’ve become addicted to credit cards—gleefully so—and then commit some crimes to pay off the mounting debt. Purchases of Ed Hardy gear and iPhones (no one tell Jason Chaffetz!) leads to felony-level fraud, which leads to a mad dash north on the run from the law. The reality, though, is that Fleischer-Camp recut a trove of otherwise innocuous footage of a random family—albeit a family obsessed with documenting themselves—and reshaped it into this much more nefarious narrative. The approach is a pretty intoxicating hook that’s bound to draw attention.

The end result, though, is already showing signs of wear. Some festival audience members over the past year have even ended up calling Fleischer-Camp a “con artist” and “liar” during post-screening Q&As. For what it’s worth, they’re not wrong. Fleischer-Camp bends his own rules in a few places which I won’t elaborate on here for the sake of keeping plot twists under wraps, but there are some obvious audio/visual tweaks here and there which had to be manufactured with post-production trickery. Sadly, Fleischer-Camp will not be in attendance at either of the film’s WFF showing, so the dramatic hubbub will likely be kept to a minimum.

It’s tough to say who Fraud is for, to be honest, other than perhaps film festival audiences looking for a jolt. I can’t imagine this film working nearly as well in the contextual vacuum of streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime, especially since the most interesting thing about the film is the convoluted process by which it was made. With its short run-time, the chance that Fraud will ever get anything resembling a wide release hovers around zero, placing it solidly in that category of once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experiences that the Wisconsin Film Festival loves to present to its audiences.

So far, Fleischer-Camp has pretty much existed in the world of short films, web series, and a handful of television shows, which makes it difficult to see if this stylistic departure marks a step in any particular direction for his career. He’s clearly talented enough, but it feels like Fraud was something he had to get out of his system, a time-killing distraction to kick around between jobs, more than a real focused artistic pronouncement.

Your mileage may vary on the larger statements that Fraud attempts to make about consumerism and post-recession debt maintenance, but the film as such didn’t make much of a lasting impression on me. It’s a big leap to connect a Bible-belt family excited about discounted goodies from a Borders bankruptcy sale to the audience embracing Zuccotti Park style fist-raising, but Fleischer-Camp gets closer than you’d expect, even if he doesn’t stick the landing.

As an exercise in form, Fraud is much more knotty in the questions it poses, but even those have their limits. Part of the reason this film incapable of standing on its own is that there’s only so much Fleischer-Camp can do with the limited amount of footage he’s got to work with. It’s a marvel, really, that he’s managed to stitch together something this coherent from such fragments as trips to a firing range, a New York vacation, and a house fire. The hand Fleischer-Camp dealt himself wasn’t exactly a royal flush but will certainly serve as a conversation starter.

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