Review: Bart Layton's 'The Imposter'

"The Imposters" Director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Story highlights

  • Director Bart Layton's "The Imposter" comes out in American theaters July 13
  • A young man impersonates a long-lost child, fooling the boy's family and friends
  • Apart from documentary-style reenactments, film is so good you "get addicted to it"

"The Imposter," like "Capturing the Friedmans" or "Tabloid," is the documentary equivalent of a page-turner. It tells a true story that is so oh wow! unbelievable, so deeply, compellingly stranger than fiction, that you don't so much watch the film as get addicted to it.

Fifteen years ago, Nicholas Barclay, a towheaded Texas boy who'd been missing for three years, turned up in Spain. But the movie, from the start, lets us know that the ''Nicholas'' who resurfaced wasn't Nicholas at all. He was a French-Algerian vagrant and con artist named Frédéric Bourdin who had a French accent and the swarthy features of the young Antonio Banderas.

Director Bart Layton builds the movie around an interview with Bourdin, who narrates the events like a real-life Tom Ripley. He's articulate and charming, but the fact that he was able to fool Nicholas' family simply by dyeing his hair blond and pretending that his memory had been wiped away proves nearly as jaw-dropping to him as it does to us.

As Nicholas, he claimed to have been kidnapped by a sinister cadre of military men who turned boys into sex slaves. Hearing the details of this horrifying fabrication, we wonder: Is that how he got Nicholas' family to suspend their disbelief? Or was he just great at exploiting their desperation to get him back? The questions intrigue, but as "The Imposter" unfolds, other possibilities come into focus, like the notion that we could be watching a case of homicide closer to home than we thought.

The cast of characters is as creepy as "Blood Simple," from a private detective eager to dig up a body to Nicholas' frog-voiced mother, who's like a backwoods Mason Reese. I do wish that Layton didn't extend the trend of documentaries using reenactments. In too many shots, we can't trust our eyes. Yet in a sense, that's almost justified, since not trusting what you see is the essence of this movie's appeal.

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