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Movie Review

Portrait of young artist proves thought-provoking

'My Kid Could Paint That' attempts to unravel the mysteries behind child abstract painter Marla Olmstead. "My Kid Could Paint That" attempts to unravel the mysteries behind child abstract painter Marla Olmstead. (SONY PICTURES CLASSICS)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 12, 2007
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Do you sometimes wish the world looked at your children and recognized them for the little geniuses you know they are? "My Kid Could Paint That" says be careful what you wish for.

You may remember Marla Olmstead from her brief tour of the People magazine/"Good Morning America" news-lite axis in 2004: a 4-year-old girl from Binghamton, N.Y., whose abstract oil paintings were selling for five-figure amounts. Was she a prodigy? Was she a fraud? Did the folks who collected original Marlas see a genuine talent or were they duped by the con game that is modern art?

Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev settled in for the long haul to find out, and his film goes so deep into the mysteries of creativity, childhood, and parenting that it eventually throws in the towel. Surprisingly, this is a satisfying conclusion for the viewer and for Marla, if not for her mom and dad.

They are Mark and Laura Olmstead, a Frito-Lay factory manager and a dental technician, who come off as both fairly hip and studiously naive. When Mark, a weekend painter, let his daughter fool around with his oils, the resulting canvases were so colorful and energetic that a friend who ran a coffee shop put them on the walls as a whimsical indulgence. Then a few of them sold. Then a gallery owner offered his space. Then a local reporter came calling. And then The New York Times weighed in.

For parents, "My Kid Could Paint That" functions as a mirror, prompting us to wonder at what point we should draw the line and close the door. When the national media camp out in our living rooms? When the kid's college account is full? Laura Olmstead was offered an out early in the process, after the local reporter, Elizabeth Cohen, warned her what might come of the publicity. Against her better judgment, the mother forged ahead; by the end of Bar-Lev's film, she's in tears.

Marla's dad is another matter. Maybe Mark is a fond, if pushy, dad who advised his daughter in minor matters of color and design. Or maybe Charlie Rose and "60 Minutes" are right, and that at least some of Marla's paintings are Mark's own work.

Part of the drama of "My Kid Could Paint That" lies in watching the filmmaker's own doubts slowly grow, until Bar-Lev has to tell the family that he needs to film Marla creating a painting from start to finish. Even then, the cloud isn't dispersed.

The movie's most cogent insights come from New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who lays bare the emotions and controversies surrounding modern art and points out that the creation of brilliant works by a toddler both confirms and disproves suspicions that the whole scene is a boondoggle. (Her buyers may be boobs, but her gift may be real.) Bar-Lev leans on his interviews with Kimmelman too heavily, but the critic's a welcome articulate voice to offset the obscene hate mail received by the Olmsteads.

If there are villains here, they include those who exploit Marla for gain or glory: the gallery owner who insists at one point that he's using Marla's work to "show up" the fraudulence of modern art (it doesn't stop him from making money off her); a weepy collector who sees her own lost innocence in the paintings; the ravenous media machine that extends to the director himself.

The only one getting off scott-free is Marla, who never seems anything more or less than a normal, well-adjusted little girl. You may want to take your own children to "My Kid Could Paint That" (a brief view of a four-letter Anglo-Saxonism on a gallery wall is the reason for the PG-13); you'll have a fascinating conversation afterward, and they'll love the scene in which Marla finally, casually snaps at her father to either help out with a painting or back off, dude.

Jackson Pollock himself couldn't have sounded more peremptory. Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be Abstract Expressionists.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

My Kid Could Paint That

Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev

Starring: Marla Olmstead, Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead, Michael Kimmelman

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 83 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (language)

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