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Imposter, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Stranger than fiction or fact."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: The very title of "The Imposter" seems like it might be giving the game away, but it's not hard to argue that this is entirely appropriate. Director Bart Layton opts to make the film a mystery only after all the facts have seemingly been laid out, and often seems to seek out the shaky ground when presenting those. This documentary politely rebuffs clarity as others strive for it; combine that with stylish production and you get an often-fascinating feature.

On the 13th of June in 1994, 13-year-old Nicolas Barclay vanished less than two miles from his home in San Antonio, Texas. As missing-child cases go, it wasn't unusual - many go unsolved if there is no break in the early hours - but it took a strange turn in October of 1997, when a young man found in Linares, Spain claimed to be the missing boy. He was not - where Nicolas was blond-haired and blue-eyed, this 23-year-old Frenchman was neither and spoke with a noticeable accent - but it's hard to blame a family that has lost a child for wanting to believe.

That this man cannot be Nicolas is made quite clear from the beginning, but what Layton sacrifices in suspense by making that explicit is more than compensated for by how this knowledge combined with the time that elapsed between the actual events and the making of the film colors audience perception of the interview segments. There's a subtle difference to how Frédéric Bourdin (the imposter of the title) is handled - he seems to be telling a story rather than answering unheard questions, and has variations in camera angle compared to others who get a single, straight-on setup - that hint that he is not just one of several interview subjects, but a narrator and protagonist. Laytonalso seems to spend much of the movie selecting interview footage that suggests that even over a dozen years later Nicolas's family still thinks of the months when Bourdin impersonated Nicolas with some strange fondness.

Bourdin isn't the only interesting personality that the audience is treated to. Nicolas's family are plain-spoken folks, not likely to challenge many stereotypes, but their straightforward nature is rather affecting. FBI Agent Nancy B. Fisher is circumspect and professional, which is a great contrast to Charlie Parker, a private detective brought into the case by a third party. Parker seems like a genuine character, into something much bigger than a P.I.'s usual work and clearly still relishing it a decade later because it's this homespun guy's greatest brush with the big time.

Layton does not solely rely on interview and stock footage, though - he makes more extensive use of recreations than documentaries normally do, and while that sort of thing can often come across as tacky or low-rent, it's done quite well here. The actors are a good enough match to the people they're portraying to pass, especially since most close-ups are of their backs. While mostly meant to avoid direct comparisons, those shots are actually well-used; they simultaneously put the audience right into the story the interviewee is telling (we're literally looking over someone's shoulder) while making the audience aware of the subjective nature of what they are seeing. It's more flashy and artificial than what is usually expected from a documentary, but to a purpose.

That purpose is to get the audience in the right mood for the last act, which is difficult to describe without limiting its impact. There's a "stranger-than-fiction" twist worthy of a good fictional thriller, but it works better than post. In part, that's because it's a fairly logical extrapolation from what the audience has already seen, but because it challenges not just what they have been watching but how they have been watching the movie. That's a tactic that might not work quite so well in a more fully dramatized version (one of which does exist).

"The Imposter"'s fondness for narrative tricks makes it a fairly unusual documentary, but also an engrossing one. It may not have many answers - heck, it often refrains from directly asking certain questions like "why?" - but it makes for a good yarn.

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originally posted: 04/29/12 01:21:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Jul-2012 (R)
  DVD: 22-Jan-2013


  DVD: 09-Oct-2012

Directed by
  Bart Layton

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