Editors' pick

The Imposter

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: R
Genre: Documentary
A con-man claims to be a vanished child to get into the United States.
Starring: Frédéric Bourdin, Adam O'Brian, Carey Gibson, Anna Ruben, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Alan Teichman, Nancy Fisher, Cathy Dresbach, Bryan Gibson
Director: Bart Layton
Running time: 1:35
Release: Opened Aug 10, 2012
'

Editorial Review

An impossible impersonation
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 10, 2012

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished from his San Antonio neighborhood. Three years later, a kid in a Spanish children’s home claimed to be Nicholas. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he was lying; after all, the gripping, twist-packed documentary that tells this story is titled “The Imposter.”

Aside from a gap in his front teeth, the guy from Spain didn’t look much like Nicholas. He had brown eyes, not blue, and brown hair, not blond. He also was some seven years older than the missing Texan. Yet when Nicholas’s older sister, Carey Gibson, arrived in Spain, she identified the stranger as her brother. That put the con man on the path to a U.S. passport and a new family.

The phony’s tale soon began to fray. A private investigator immediately was convinced that the kid was lying, and an FBI agent gradually came to the same conclusion. But Nicholas’s mother and sister insisted that the right boy had returned to them. As for the impostor, he explained his appearance, demeanor and accent -- French, not Spanish -- with an elaborate tale of sexual abuse by a criminal ring with military ties. Nobody wants to be the insensitive bureaucrat who leans too heavily on a child who has been raped.

The complicated identity of the poseur, whose name is Frederic Bourdin, is eventually disclosed. But first he explains, in great detail and with evident pride, how he conned Gibson. While pretending to be too traumatized to speak, he absorbed all the available information, notably the family photos she helpfully brought to Spain.

Most of the central figures in this saga appear onscreen, supplemented by family home videos and scenes staged with actors. Director Bart Layton reconstructs the hoax with film-noir drama but also occasional comic tweaks. (When the charlatan calls U.S. police departments, the phone is answered by clips from vintage television police shows.)

“The Imposter” initially seems to be a tutorial in identity theft, as well as a cautionary tale about the susceptibility of people who have lost a loved one. But that’s not the half of it. The pretender becomes convinced that Gibson recognized all along that he wasn’t her brother. He also begins to suspect that Nicholas’s relatives know what really happened to the boy and are using the substitute to allay suspicions. In other words, Bourdin believes that the family conned him.

Despite its playful flourishes, “The Imposter” follows the rules of documentary. The film doesn’t pretend to answer all of the questions about the still-unsolved case of Nicholas Barclay. But what’s most fascinating are the movie’s larger questions about why some people tell impossible lies -- and why others believe them.

An impossible impersonation
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 10, 2012

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished from his San Antonio neighborhood. Three years later, a kid in a Spanish children’s home claimed to be Nicholas. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he was lying; after all, the gripping, twist-packed documentary that tells this story is titled “The Imposter.”

Aside from a gap in his front teeth, the guy from Spain didn’t look much like Nicholas. He had brown eyes, not blue, and brown hair, not blond. He also was some seven years older than the missing Texan. Yet when Nicholas’s older sister, Carey Gibson, arrived in Spain, she identified the stranger as her brother. That put the con man on the path to a U.S. passport and a new family.

The phony’s tale soon began to fray. A private investigator immediately was convinced that the kid was lying, and an FBI agent gradually came to the same conclusion. But Nicholas’s mother and sister insisted that the right boy had returned to them. As for the impostor, he explained his appearance, demeanor and accent -- French, not Spanish -- with an elaborate tale of sexual abuse by a criminal ring with military ties. Nobody wants to be the insensitive bureaucrat who leans too heavily on a child who has been raped.

The complicated identity of the poseur, whose name is Frederic Bourdin, is eventually disclosed. But first he explains, in great detail and with evident pride, how he conned Gibson. While pretending to be too traumatized to speak, he absorbed all the available information, notably the family photos she helpfully brought to Spain.

Most of the central figures in this saga appear onscreen, supplemented by family home videos and scenes staged with actors. Director Bart Layton reconstructs the hoax with film-noir drama but also occasional comic tweaks. (When the charlatan calls U.S. police departments, the phone is answered by clips from vintage television police shows.)

“The Imposter” initially seems to be a tutorial in identity theft, as well as a cautionary tale about the susceptibility of people who have lost a loved one. But that’s not the half of it. The pretender becomes convinced that Gibson recognized all along that he wasn’t her brother. He also begins to suspect that Nicholas’s relatives know what really happened to the boy and are using the substitute to allay suspicions. In other words, Bourdin believes that the family conned him.

Despite its playful flourishes, “The Imposter” follows the rules of documentary. The film doesn’t pretend to answer all of the questions about the still-unsolved case of Nicholas Barclay. But what’s most fascinating are the movie’s larger questions about why some people tell impossible lies -- and why others believe them.

Contains profanity.

Reader Reviews

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Avg reader rating
Post review spoils everything

This is actually a very interesting film if you haven't had it all spoiled by reading the witless review by Mark Jenkins. The worst reviewers can't think of anything to say except to summarize the film, including the twists and turns and conclusion. Jenkins' review is one of the worst offenders I've ever read.