Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from his Texas town in June 1994, only to be found in a small village in Spain 3 ½ years later—claiming to be a victim of torture, rape and experiments that greatly altered his appearance. His family welcomed him back to the United States with open arms, where he enrolled in high school and lived the life of a “normal” teenager. Despite their warm reception, something was not quite right and the Barclay family soon discovered the boy living under their roof was not who he said he was.
Meet Frederic Bourdin, a French child impersonator at the center of Bart Layton’s new documentary, “The Imposter.” So bizarre that it seems to be lifted from the pages of a fictitious crime thriller, it is actually a true American horror story that has recently resurfaced, thanks in part to David Grann’s 2008 article for The New Yorker entitled “The Chameleon.”
The film gets off to a slow start, as it introduces the audience to Frederic, the surviving family members and government officials involved in the case. There is a great deal of discussion regarding how improbable the impersonation seemed—with Frederic’s dark hair and brown eyes contrasting Nick’s blonde hair and blue eyes—but the movie really starts to get interesting when we are shown home video of Frederic meeting the Barclays for the first time in 1997. As more mysteries are uncovered and questions arise about Nick’s troubled past and disappearance, the audience is taken on a twisted thrill ride where nobody knows just what to believe.
“The Imposter” is uniquely structured in that there is no trying to hide this “imposter;” in fact, the audience meets Frederic very early on in the film and he is its most consistent narrator. The question is, should the audience put so much faith in a man infamous for his pathological lies regarding his identity and the actions of others? While there are many others interviewed, the documentary is ever so slightly skewed to Frederic’s perspective, which may be flawed but is captivating all the same.
Layton does not simply rely on interviews, news clips and home videos to tell the story, but uses a series of reenactments—from the time Frederic was first discovered hunched over in a phone booth to the thrilling end of the case’s investigation. This storytelling device is surprisingly effective and does not detract from the film (as it did in last year’s “Dreams of a Life” documentary), but enhances the audience’s understanding of the events. It also helps that Frederic is an active part of the reenactments and seamlessly transitions the interviews and staged segments. With shadowed faces, cigarettes billowing smoke and gloomy shots of the Texas countryside, the sense of dread and mystery are only heightened by these sequences.
Although the documentary reaches an open-ended yet satisfying conclusion, this story is so unbelievable that “The Imposter” cannot do it the full justice it deserves. Frederic’s early acts of impersonating children throughout Europe are merely brushed upon and the psychological elements of his actions are almost entirely out of the picture. A television docu-series or book would probably be better suited to giving a multifaceted view that a 1-hour, 30-minute documentary just cannot accomplish with such a limited duration.
Frederic is a rare sort of “villain,” if that is the appropriate term to use when describing him. His actions negatively impacted and hurt so many people, and yet, he is an extremely likable, funny and talented person to be able to pull off such convincing performances. He treads a thin line between fact and fiction that we are thrilled to walk along in the moment, but will undoubtedly yearn to journey further on once the theater lights come up.