Halfway into its running time, Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter hits a patch of sameness and looks to have exhausted its reason for being. But Lordy, can looks be deceiving.
The film centers on a homeless, 23-year-old French-Algerian wacko named Frédéric Bourdin, who, for reasons it would take a battery of shrinks to explain, decides to pass himself off as a teenage kidnap victim in hopes of attracting both attention and, perhaps, love. (“Nobody ever gave me a childhood.”) In interviews with the filmmaker, Bourdin talks frankly, at times even exuberantly, about scamming police and social workers in Spain (where he’d been “found”), combing lists of children around the world who’d disappeared for a suitable candidate for impersonation; and settling, more or less at random, on a 13-year-old San Antonio boy named Nicholas Barclay, who’d vanished three and a half years earlier on his way home from playing basketball.
In my view and, likely, yours, anyone who would contact a family that had suffered the most nightmarish tragedy imaginable and pretend to be an almost certainly dead child deserves a one-way ticket to Abu Ghraib. That said, there was little reason to think Bourdin’s ruse would succeed for even an instant. He was, to start with, six years older than Barclay. Plus, his hair was dark, not blond. His eyes were brown, not blue. He spoke English with a heavy French accent. Basically, Helen Keller wouldn’t have taken him for Nicholas Barclay. But the Barclays did.
It turns out that there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t (or won’t) believe the evidence of their eyes and ears, and Layton explores them in interviews with the Barclay family — among them Nicholas’s mother, Beverly, and older sister, Carey. As Beverly says, the worst part was not knowing what happened to her son, an ignorance so corrosive, so horrible, that she longed for an alternative, any alternative.
Before Carey flew to Spain to retrieve him, the family had been led to expect changes in Nicholas’s appearance as well as gaps in his memory. Bourdin told the authorities he’d been kidnapped and tortured, perhaps by agents of the U.S. government. He’d been forced to speak only in French (hence, his accent). He’d been experimented on, once by having chemicals injected into his eyes (hence, their change from blue to brown). I’m sure that as you read this you’ll be thinking, How could anyone fall for such a load of crap? But do you know what it feels like to have a 13-year-old wrenched from your existence? To live three and a half years in a state of grief and incomprehension?
And there I must leave it … at a point where the subjects’ cognitive dissonance is so extreme that it seems as if only a surrealist of genius could make sense of things.
I can say, without fear of spoiling anything, that The Imposter is shockingly entertaining — guilt-inducingly so, given the ghastliness of its particulars. We laugh because it’s more proof that life can be a sick farce, sicker than Hollywood screenwriters can conceive on their blackest days.