Review originally published March 21, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared without a trace from his neighborhood in San Antonio, TX. In 1997, he finally resurfaced in Spain, sporting a distinctive French accent and a beard pattern well beyond his expected age. And yet the Barclays welcomed him home with open arms. Had the family’s grief and subsequent relief in finding the missing boy significantly warped their perception of young Nicholas, or was a more devious scheme somehow in play?
It’s one hell of a true-crime hook, and right from the start of "The Imposter," director Bart Layton isn’t shy about establishing Frédéric Bourdin as a vagabond looking to take advantage of Barclay’s disappearance. In kind, Bourdin doesn’t hesitate to reveal how he convinced the authorities that he looked the part (bleaching his hair, replicating the boy’s tattoos) and survived unspeakable (read: invented) torments over the years, enough so to find himself flown to the States and into the arms of a caring, complacent family.
From there, the documentary’s tone shifts from one of sympathy, as the Barclays fall for a con man against evidence to the contrary that would seem impossible to ignore, to something more sinister by suggesting that they perhaps had good reason to go along with the gag. It’s a fascinating implication – however unsubstantiated – in that it handily defuses whatever frustration viewers might be feeling in the face of grown adults and government officials alike being consistently, convincingly fooled by a twenty-something Frenchman.
To hear Bourdin’s own confessions and to see his ever-grinning face makes the eye-rolling ordeal a bit easier to buy, much as seeing the pleas of innocence on part of the Barclays causes one to second-guess the extent to which such anguish could feasibly mutate their collective expectation of a newly returned son and sibling to the fold. Layton overlaps actual interview testimony with starkly shot re-enactments, instating a fluid sense of credibility and substantial sense of theatricality to the proceedings. Only the late involvement of a private investigator feels more like a true-crime TV creation (Layton is a vet of the format, and the film is an A&E co-production), but that can be chalked up to his outsized personality more than anything else.
It sounds like the stuff of a hokey Hollywood thriller, and indeed, "The Chameleon," a weakly-reviewed names-changed feature version of the events starring Famke Janssen and Ellen Barkin, has already come and gone. More impressively, "The Imposter" doesn’t just offer up the closest thing to the honest truth in a still slippery case, it doles out the real-life revelations with a skilled precision that keeps the film exciting without ever becoming exploitative.