Were it not for the footage of news reports edited into the film, as well as the raft of information out there on the disappearance of 13-year-old Texan Nicholas Barclay back in 1994, you might spend the length of The Imposter waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to come onscreen to assure you this was all a hoax masquerading as a documentary.
As simply as I can put it, this nonfiction film from director Bart Layton focuses on Nicholas' disappearance and how, more than three years later, his family received the impossible news that he had been found in, of all places, Spain.
The reality was that the person claiming to be Nicholas was, in fact, Frédéric Bourdin, a French-Algerian con artist in his 20s. Somehow, through a series of administrative hiccups, wishful thinking and Bourdin's charm, the ruse was kept up for a full five months before a private investigator figured out something was amiss.
Like a good piece of long-form journalism, The Imposter turns over every detail. Layton is lucky he was able to secure interviews with Nicholas' mother and sister, both of whom still seem baffled by the bizarre turn their otherwise quiet life took.
But his grandest coup is getting Bourdin to expound at length about how he was able to convince a grieving family and authorities from the FBI and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children that he was—in spite of glaring physical differences and his obvious accent—a young boy from Texas. Through those talking-head interviews, you quickly grasp Bourdin's charm and guile, even though you want to smack him for what he put the Barclays through.
Barton also doesn't dare try to press any firm answers as to the motivations of Bourdin and the Barclays, leaving those judgments to the viewer. He comes close to hobbling the film with the inclusion of a particularly grisly theory as to Nicholas' whereabouts, which comes off as conspiratorial and wholly unnecessary.
There are some weird touches, too, by way of overly dramatic re-enactments of some of the key events of this story. But those are much easier to swallow, as they help reveal the strange intricacies and sordid details of Bourdin's fairly amazing feat of chicanery. R.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: The Imposter opens Friday at Cinema 21.