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Published on Sep 24, 2007
In the span of only a few months, 4-year-old Marla Olmstead rocketed from total obscurity into international renown -- and sold over $300,000 dollars worth of paintings. She was compared to Kandinsky and Pollock, and called "a budding Picasso." Inside Edition, The Jane Pauley Show, and NPR did pieces, and The Today Show and Good Morning America got in a bidding war over an appearance by the bashful toddler. There was talk of corporate sponsorship, with the family fielding calls from The Gap and Crayola.
But not all of the attention was positive. From the beginning, many faulted her parents for exposing Marla to the glare of the media and accused the couple of exploiting their daughter for financial gain. Others felt her work was, in fact, comparable to the great Abstract Expressionists -- but saw this as emblematic of the meaninglessness of Modern Art. "She is painting exactly as all the adult paintings have been in the past 50 years, but painting like a child, too. That is what everybody things but they don't dare to say it," said Oggi, the leading Italian weekly. Through no intention of her own, Marla revived the age-old question, 'what is art?'
And then, five months into Marla's new life as a celebrity and just short of her fifth birthday, a bombshell dropped. CBS' 60 Minutes aired an exposé suggesting strongly that the paintings were painted by her father, himself an amateur painter. As quickly as the public built Marla up, they tore her down. The New York Post asked whether "the juvenile Jackson Pollock may actually be a full-fledged Willem de Frauding," the Olmsteads were barraged with hate mail, ostracized around town, sales of the paintings dried up, and Marla's art dealer considered moving out of Binghamton. Embattled, the Olmsteads turned to the filmmaker to clear their name. Torn between his own responsibility as a journalist and the family's desire to see their integrity restored, the director finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that can't possibly end well for him and them, and could easily end badly for both.