Imagine for a moment that you are screenwriter in Hollywood. You come up with this idea for a psychological thriller about a young boy who is kidnapped, and then some years later a boy is found claiming to be the missing child. He looks nothing like the kidnapped boy, but the family believe itâ€™s him, at least at first. Chances are youâ€™d get laughed out of the executiveâ€™s office for pitching such an outlandish idea.
It does however make for an astonishing story for a documentary. After all, the clichÃ© does say that the truth is stranger than fiction. The Imposter tells the story of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy who disappears from his hometown in Texas, his family fearing that he has been kidnapped. Three years later, a boy is found in Spain claiming to be Nicholas Barclay, and he is returned to his family who are waiting for him with open arms. However, as time goes on they begin to suspect that the boy isnâ€™t who he claims to be. They soon discover that he is in fact Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman who impersonates missing people.
What is so alarming about this story is that Bourdin was accepted by the Barclay family so warmly, even though he looks nothing like the actual Nicholas Barclay. It even takes a while for someone to notice that Bourdin canâ€™t speak English without an accent. There is absolutely no resemblance between the two of them at all. So why did the Barclay family believe him?
When we see the heart breaking interviews with the Barclay family, it seems clear that they believed Bourdin because they just wanted to. They were in denial on such a massive scale that they were willing to accept that Bourdin was Nicholas. Having said that, the director Bart Layton handles the ambiguity of the story so superbly that we actually see signs of something much more sinister underneath; that Bourdin was a convenient cover-up for the skeletons in the family closet.
Layton combines talking head interviews with the family of Nicholas Barclay, and Frederic Bourdin himself, along with dramatic re-enactments. You can almost hear the documentary filmmakers scream at the thought of the latter manipulating the truth, and yet that really is the point of the film. Like Verbal Kint telling the story of Keyser Soze, the family and Bourdin are telling their own versions of the story and we have no idea which is the truth. Thatâ€™s assuming either of them are. It doesnâ€™t attempt to connect the dots for the audience, which is what makes it such an unnerving experience. Probably the most gripping and terrifying documentary of the year so far.
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