Three years after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas, in 1994, the Barclay family received a call from a children’s shelter half-way across the world in Spain. They claimed to have possession of their son who was found by tourists, and was obviously very traumatized. Immediately, sister Carey Gibson got on a plane for the first time in her life to bring her brother back to San Antonio, Texas. The boy she encountered was taller than Nicholas should have been by that age, spoke with a French accent, and most tellingly, did not have blue eyes. In fact, he was not Nicholas Barclay, but Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old man determined to have another identity. Astoundingly, the authorities, his sister, and even his mother believed that “Nicholas” was who he said he was for months until it all came crashing down. The events of this documentary are eyebrow-raising to say the least; the synopsis alone is enough to make you question how something like this is even possible. However, it is the film’s ability to illustrate exactly how the implausible can be believable that makes THE IMPOSTER so astounding.
The captivating nature of THE IMPOSTER is due in large part to Bourdin’s chillingly self-satisfied interview in which he describes in impressive detail how and why he assumed the identity of a boy so different from him and somehow manage to fool almost every person he encounters. Bourdin’s expressive way of talking is disarming, making it difficult not to empathize with him, against your better judgement. However, the more interesting question which does not have an easy answer is why or how did an entire family allow themselves to be strung along thinking they had their son back even when there was a huge amount of evidence to the contrary literally staring at them?
Though the story of THE IMPOSTER is about lies, director Bart Layton is preoccupied with discovering the truth. Taking a page from legendary documentarian, Errol Morris, Layton utilizes re-enactments along with interview footage and actual home-video of the family to give a complete picture of what really happened. It is one thing to hear about how awkward it was when they got off the plane in San Antonio, but it is another thing entirely to see that initial encounter on a gritty VHS tape. The tension is painfully visible. In addition to making the drama feel more authentic, the aesthetics of the film are also gorgeously cinematic, elevating sinister overtones of THE IMPOSTER far above a shocking 20/20 special and into the realm of art-cinema.
– Elizabeth Skerrett, Violet Crown Cinema