This week in movies you missed: a true story stranger than fiction.
What You Missed
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay left his home in San Antonio, Tx., and did not return. Nearly four years later, his family received a call from Spain. Their missing child, they were told, had been found. Nicholas’ grown sister, Carey Gibson, jumped on a plane.
What she didn’t know — but the viewer of Bart Layton’s documentary does, early on — was that “Nicholas” was actually a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin who made a habit of impersonating abused or abandoned teenagers. His motive, he claimed, was to find the love and care his own family had denied him.
Until now, Bourdin had invented his false identities, he tells us in interview footage. He stole Nicholas’ only because the authorities threatened him with finger-printing, which would have revealed his long record. As soon as he saw a color photo of the missing boy, Bourdin realized he could never convince Nicholas’ family that he — dark-eyed, dark-haired, not a native English speaker — was their blond, blue-eyed, all-American son.
Or could he?
Why You Missed It
Like many docs, The Imposter skipped most U.S. theaters, reaching 31.
Should You Keep Missing It?
The strange exploits of Bourdin are already well documented — for instance, in this 2008 New Yorker piece, which reveals how he continued successfully to impersonate teens and fool sympathetic do-gooders even after his fame as an imposter had spread across the U.S. (They don’t watch Connie Chung in France!)
While it explores a narrower slice of the story, The Imposter is still well worth watching. Layton’s documentary has three components: interviews (with Bourdin, Nicholas’ family members, the FBI agent assigned to his case, and the private detective who first suspected him); snippets of VHS footage from Nicholas’ family; and re-enactments of the events using actors.
These aren’t lurid, basic-cable-type re-enactments; they’re restrained, generally soundless and artistically shot, à la Errol Morris. They draw us in while also reminding us how much fabrication is involved in storytelling — particularly when the storyteller is an attested pathological liar like Bourdin. He loves to talk about himself, but can we trust anything he tells us? For that matter, can we trust Nicholas’ family?
Layton uses film noirish touches to emphasize his dramatic shaping of the story, which features a Texan private dick, Charlie Parker, straight out of a Coen brothers movie. While the FBI agent looks for the child sex ring that supposedly abducted Nicholas, Parker is the one who thinks to compare the shape of the boy’s ears in a childhood photo with those of Bourdin, then growls, “The ears don’t match!”
Bourdin’s disguise wasn’t exactly hard to penetrate. (Even today, he speaks with a strong French accent unimaginable from a native English speaker.) The real question is, how did he fool so many for so long? As Parker speculates about whether Nicholas’ family really thought Bourdin was their son, and why they might have conned the con man, the story develops another, more disturbing layer of mystery. Like many real-life mysteries, it lacks the satisfying wrap-up of a fictional whodunit. But the journey is worth taking.
Verdict: See it if you like con-artist stories or documentaries that explore the dark corners of human behavior. Then memorize your kids’ faces (and ears).
More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs
The Awakening (Rebecca Hall in ghost story set in 1921 England)
“Downton Abbey,” season 3
I Am Bruce Lee (TV doc about the martial-arts star)
Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)