Roughly five years ago, Binghamton, NY factory manager and amateur painter Mark Olmstead invited his two-year-old daughter Marla to paint with him. A year later, Mark and his wife Laura loaned Marla's sprightly abstracts to a nearby coffeehouse. Customers liked the paintings. A local newspaper wrote about them. Soon, the four-year-old Marla was routinely selling her work for five figures, and having her own exhibitions. Amir Bar-Lev's documentary My Kid Could Paint That tells that much of Marla's story in its first half hour, adding mini-histories of child prodigies and modern art, but otherwise not bringing any insight into freaky kid geniuses and the craziness of the modern art market that isn't already inherent.
Yet early on, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman makes a provocative point that gradually infects the whole movie, and transforms it. Kimmelman suggests that classical paintings tell their stories on the canvass, while in modern art, the story exists outside the frame. It's how and why painters toil that sells their work, more than the work itself. In the case of Marla Olmstead, her story—and what it has to say about the suggestibility of art patrons—takes a turn when experts suggest that she's not responsible for her own paintings.
At this point, Bar-Lev becomes a character in his own film, questioning whether his affection for the amiable Olmsteads has blinded him to a scam. The director tries to suss out the truth—or at least get some footage of Marla creating something amazing—but what makes My Kid Could Paint That such a powerful film is that the truth doesn't change what the movie is about. The movie blooms from a quirky human-interest story to become so much more, including a critique of how the 24-hour news cycle grinds up those who get caught in it (and whether well-meaning documentarians can be part of the problem).
Bar-Lev is also intrigued by the ethereality of childhood, and whether nurturing a gift can also kill it. Laura Olmstead worries constantly about whether they're ruining Marla's childhood or enhancing it with all the opportunities they accept on her behalf, and both she and Mark despair when the public begins to doubt her. This is how it goes with parents. Every day, children do amazing things that parents try to record, understand, and convey, because adults want everyone to appreciate their kids as much as they do. When others can't see what parents see, there's an inescapable ache. As much as anything, My Kid Could Paint That is about that ache.