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Friday, October 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"My Kid Could Paint That" | Is something wrong with this picture?

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"My Kid Could Paint That," a documentary by Amir Bar-Lev. 83 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language. Harvard Exit.

At a gallery opening, the artist strolls unconcernedly through a bustle of people, paying little attention to those oohing and aahing over the boisterous colors and energy of her abstract paintings. Wearing a necklace that appears handmade (painted noodles, perhaps?), she munches a cookie. She is, after all, only 4 years old.

Amir Bar-Lev's fascinating documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" tells the story of Marla Olmstead, a preschool painting prodigy whose works command many thousands of dollars. And yet, it isn't really Marla's story at all, but a much larger one; this tale of a little girl turns out to be a thoughtful reflection on truth, on art and on childhood.

The adorable daughter of a Binghamton, N.Y., Frito-Lay night manager and a dental assistant, Marla makes a difficult subject for a documentary. She has little to say about her art, instead preferring to engage Bar-Lev and his camera crew in playing with her and her brother Zane. And when controversy stirs around her, as "60 Minutes II" airs a segment that strongly insinuates that Marla's father, Mark, collaborates on her paintings, she's not in a position to clear her name. Instead, Mark and his wife, Laura, stare into Bar-Lev's camera, angrily facing the filmmaker whom they once welcomed into their home. "I need you to believe me," says Laura, in urgent tones.

Bar-Lev speaks to New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, to Marla's former art dealer Anthony Brunelli ("I'd always felt that modern art is something of a scam," he says candidly; later, we watch him shrewdly talk a reluctant couple into buying one of Marla's works), to journalist Elizabeth Cohen, who wrote about Marla for the local paper, and to himself, wondering on-camera about his responsibility to the story. Is it right that a child's happy swirls should be marketed? If Marla didn't entirely create the paintings, are they still beautiful? Is it moral for a filmmaker to continue telling a story, even as the story becomes something entirely different from what he came on to tell?

"My Kid Could Paint That" keeps us intrigued by the questions, long after its last shot of Marla, in a blue dress reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, fades away.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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