This stunning and, at times, disturbing documentary basis itself on a true story that proves that true stories can be the most peculiar and incredible of them all. In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy, Nicholas Barclay, went missing in Texas, three years later he is reportedly found in Spain. However, the boy found is not Nicholas Barclay, but Frédéric Bourdin who eventually decides to impersonate the boy. What is perhaps most shocking is that the family of missing child accepted that this was Nicholas. The film documents the events that occurred, hoping to provide some of the answers to how this 23-year-old man (with a French accent) posed as a sixteen old boy (with a Texan accent), managing to convince the missing boy’s own family in the process.
Let’s be honest if The Imposter was a fictional film it would lambasted for being utterly ridiculous and implausible and it is utterly ridiculous, however the fact that the story is true means that one can not criticise it for that. What made Frédéric Bourdin think that such a thing was possible is odd enough, but the fact that it worked is even odder. Does the film answer the question of why it worked? No, but the film allows you to draw your own conclusions, perhaps these people were in such a desperate situation that they accepted something that they so desperately wanted and never questioned the miracle that boy was alive.
It is a shocking story, made even the more ludicrous by the fact the boy spoke with a very notable French accent. It is true that a teenager goes though a great deal of change during their puberty years, but you do not get a brand new accent. There is a question over whether the boy’s family truly believed that this was their son, but like the question surrounding how the con artist achieved what he did, the answer is rather ambiguous, allowing the viewer to puzzle out why the family accepted someone who isn’t their own son. You would think that a mother would recognise her own child, but she accepted this complete stranger into their family, seemingly unaware that this was not her son. How did this work? How did he convince them? Tons of questions, all asked throughout the film, no definite answers are provided, because there are no definite answers.
However, there are flaws; there is a question over whether the film mocked the family of the missing boy or whether it was as sensitive with the fact that the boy could clearly be dead as it should have been. In the screening I was in the audience were laughing at various aspects of the documentary. Were they laughing at the ridiculousness of the story or at the family? I think it was the latter. Whether the film is to blame is debatable, I personally did not find it amusing, but sympathised with the family as they were clearly in a very desperate situation. The documentary becomes somewhat moving in that regard, I felt sympathy for family, and I felt a strong element of dislike for Frédéric Bourdin as he is toying with the emotions of very vulnerable people, which is frankly sick. However, the documentary is rather even handed concerning Frédéric Bourdin, you feel a degree of sympathy for him also as he had a somewhat difficult and empty childhood. The film provides answers for why he did what he did.
The Imposter plays as docuthriller (documentary and thriller) with the visual qualities of film noir (black and white shady cinematography), and because of this there is a degree of tension as accusations are made and various aspects of the story are not what they seem. Bart Layton’s outstanding documentary will likely be among the best films of year.