Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Imposter” the real deal
This documentary, focused on the man who impersonated missing teen Nicholas Barclay in the '90s, thrills throughout.
A con man impersonates a missing American kid and almost gets away with it. The concept sounded fascinating, but discovering the whole story just from this documentary’s description gave me pause. Could The Imposter still thrill, even knowing the ending in advance?
Composed of present-day interviews, reenactments and occasional contemporaneous video, The Imposter focuses on two distinct events: the disappearance of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay in 1994 and the discovery of a man claiming to be Nicholas Barclay in 1997.
That man – his name, Frederic Bourdin, is ultimately unimportant – is the hero/antagonist of The Imposter. Deciding which is no easy task. What’s indisputable is that this is his story. Even when the film cuts away to still-haggard family members and government officials, they speak only of him, either as Nicholas or as the imposter.
It’s easy to see why. The imposter is infuriatingly charismatic and greatly skilled at crafting a story to fit his needs. In his words, the circumstances that led him to impersonate Nicholas Barclay began out of necessity–he needed a place to stay–but in order to stay in a juvenile shelter he needed to have a juvenile identity. Once he had Nicholas’, though, the temptation of starting over with a new life and a new family was too much to resist.
That’s how he tells it. And despite the evidence to the contrary–evidence better to discover as it’s revealed–there’s something about the way he tells it that makes you want to trust him. You begin to see how he could have fooled this family, even though he looks nothing like Nicholas, speaks with a foreign accent and remembers nothing about his past life. He’s that good.
Where the movie really hits its mark, though, is in what happens after the imposter’s “sister” comes to get him. Before then, it’s a cool story about a man caught up in his own lie, feverishly trying to pull off his great deception. After, it’s something else. Several somethings, really. It’s worth keeping most of those changes and twists in the story under wraps, but suffice it to say this doc isn’t one you’ll forget easily.
But one facet of this second half grabbed me harder than the rest: the way “Nicholas” and his family seemed to really click in the weeks before the imposter’s reveal. The imposter seems at his happiest when he recalls the time spent in San Antonio, and there’s a number of moments where the family seems to slip, describing his return as if he really was Nicholas, even years after his deception has been revealed. In fact, the film seems to ask whether everyone might have simply been better off if the imposter had successfully grown up as Nicholas Barclay.
None of this would be as engaging were it not for The Imposter’s seemingly effortless editing. Director Bart Layton bleeds reenactments and interviews together, bolstering the words and images of each. In a particularly astute move, a number of phone conversations retold by the imposter are altered to sound like actual phone conversations, layered over his stand-in and his present-day self in alternation.
By the end of The Imposter, you don’t know whose story to believe. The imposter calls himself an opportunist; the FBI calls him a con man. The family condemns him for his deceit; he condemns them for secrets he believes they still keep. Only one fact remains concrete: This man is not Nicholas Barclay. We won’t know the answer to anything else.
The Imposter premieres at the Milwaukee Film Festival Friday, Sept. 28 at 4:30 p.m., at the Downer Theatre, and screens three additional times during the festival. For more information, visit the MFF website.
For a full list of films, check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides to the Milwaukee Film Festival, covering premieres during the first weekend and the month of October, by Matthew Reddin and Sahan Jayasuriya.