The Imposter is one of those films that stretches the bounds of plausibility so much that it can only work as a documentary. If the story was fictionalized, nobody would buy the premise, because it really seems like there’s no possible way any of that stuff could really have happened. I mean, really.
In 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappears in San Antonio, Texas. After an evening out playing basketball with friends, he simply never returns home. Nicholas has run away before, but this time, it’s different. After enduring the hell of not knowing what happened to their son and brother for nearly four years, the Barclay family receive a call that Nicholas has been found in a small town in Spain. Overwhelmed by the news, they set out to find him and bring him home.
However, this “Nicholas” has dark hair instead of blond, brown eyes instead of blue, looks a lot older than 16 and speaks with a French accent. Through interviews with Nicholas’ sister and mother, with the alleged “Nicholas”, and with the FBI agents who investigated the case, director Bart Layton unravels a truly bizarre story with more twists and shocking reveals than most fictional thrillers.
Through reenactments that are shot through the point of view of the speaker, Layton establishes the unreliability of memory and subjective perception. The Imposter is a documentary Rashomon for the modern age, a tale in which no version of the truth seems quite satisfactory, and in which every twist is more surprising than the last. The introduction of a private investigator who joins the story about halfway through really makes the film’s third act, during which he spends a good deal of time expounding (hilariously) on his theories about what really happened to Nicholas Barclay.
It’s better to go into The Imposter without knowing too much about the story, because it’s really one of those “it has to be seen to be believed” docs. The filmmaking is slick, well paced, and structured for maximum impact every time a new detail is revealed. One of the best mysteries you’re likely to find at Hot Docs (or any festival) this year, The Imposter is suspenseful and intense, a nail-biter all the way through to the end.
The Imposter screened at part of the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival.
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