The Imposter

“The Imposter” has the wildest and most unbelievable, mind-bending story seen in a documentary since “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The 23-year-old Frenchman Frederic Bourdin played a simple Texas family for chumps by posing as their missing child, but what’s really impressive is that the movie plays us like a violin too.

The whole thing started with just a phone call. Frederic Bourdin was a drifter on the street in Spain. He called the cops from a payphone pretending to be a tourist and claimed to have found a child. But when the cops arrived, it was him posing as that child, nervous, hostile, scared and lonely. His motivation was to simply get off the streets and get care and shelter in a home. But when the cops demanded to know his identity, he invented a story that he was an American and needed an evening alone to phone his parents and let him know he was okay. He used this time to dredge up info on missing children in the US and finally claimed to be Texas’s own Nicholas Barclay.

This is where it gets interesting. Nicholas was only 13 when he disappeared and had been missing for four years when Frederic made the call stateside. Naturally, Carey Gibson, Nicholas’s sister, was on the first flight to Spain to pick up her brother. Despite the unlikelihood of Nicholas showing up, in Spain of all places, despite having dark, five o’clock shadow, despite a thick French accent and despite not having Nick’s blue eyes and blonde hair, Carey and her family bought it.

They wanted so badly to believe that they missed all of the red flags, and Frederic had dug himself so deep that he was forced to just keep digging until he came out the other side. Frederic was granted American citizenship, and he returned home to Texas to attend high school and live with Nicholas’s family. He concocted a horror story that he was part of an elaborate sex slave ring, one that changed the color of his hair and eyes, caused him to forget his past and be an essentially changed person. It was even enough to fool the FBI.

What’s more interesting here: why Frederic perpetuated his lie or why so many people believed him? “The Imposter” leads us toward both lines of questioning. Director Bart Layton stages the whole film as a dim, noir thriller, muffling voices over the phone, adding haze and static to the already gritty home videos of Nicholas and including ominous recreations of the events. Frederic’s centered close-ups during his interviews make it look as though he could be acting, partaking in his own form of screen villainy.

What really happened here? Are we seeing Frederic being filmed from jail? Did he escape? Does the family know because he came clean? What happened to Nicholas? In its final few minutes, “The Imposter” attains a level of multi-faceted urgency. It turns the table on us and for a moment makes us believe Frederic’s lie. It’s a film that not only tells an impossible story but lets us know that under the right circumstances, we can believe anything.

3 ½ stars

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