The Imposter

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Will the real Nicholas Barclay please stand up?

The Imposter (2012)

Directed by Bart Layton
Starring: Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Frederic Bourdin, Carey Gibson
Run Time: 95 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R

This strange and intriguing documentary-style film is based on the actual disappearance of a blond, blue-eyed 13-year-old Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay. Three years later, a dark-skinned, dark-eyed Spanish-accented man claiming to be Nick returns.

Based on a fascinating article in The New Yorker by David Grann, “The Imposter” follows the chronicle of this bizarre—yet real—incident, beginning with the Spanish police’s discovery of Nicolas, his return to Texas, the Barclay family’s unequivocal acceptance of him, the doubts and the questions by third parties and the final Hitchcockian twists.

Amid the Barclay family’s joy, obvious differences between the runaway Nick and the returning Nick are overlooked. The returned Nick claimed that an international child trafficking ring brought him to Spain, horribly mistreated him, forced him to speak with a Spanish accent and left him a broken amnesiac.

The Barclays accepted this explanation and, out of concern for his mental well-being, did not question him heavily. Soon Nicholas was going to high school, chilling with new friends.
The FBI and child services agencies followed up on Nicholas’ explanation of his absence in order to locate the child trafficking ring. An FBI psychologist rejected Nick’s account, stating that Nicholas’s accent proved that he was not born in the US.

A local private investigator, Charlie Parker, took the initiative to investigate further, based on his theory that “no two ears are alike.”

If the returning Nick is an imposter, what has happened to the real Nick? Why is the family so accepting? Why wasn’t DNA testing done? Dark explanations are hypothesized, as the final twists are exposed.

First time British film director Bart Layton employs a number of devises not typically used in documentary films. Instead, Layton mixes actors with the actual participants, uses re-enactments, and adds long after the fact interviews with the returned Nicholas and with Nicholas’s sister, mother, uncle and other Barclay family members. These are “Reality TV” devices with which Layton is familiar, since Layton has been the producer of the “Reality TV” programs “Locked Up Abroad” (about young Brits who wind up in jail overseas) and “Breakout” (about prison escapes).

This format works extremely well in “The Imposter,” especially in the ways conflicting information and innuendos unfold. We understand that all the witnesses are giving their slants on the story, yet believe what they say. Layton stated in a recent interview, “You know you’ve got an unreliable witness and yet you still go along with it, and that’s part of what makes this a different kind of documentary.”

Because of the almost “Rashomon” effect of the interweaving of various viewpoints, we leave the theater talking about the film and wondering whether our own version of events is accurate. Only an extraordinary documentary such as “The Imposter” can create such a sense of intrigue, tension and mystery.

(c)Emily S. Mendel 2012 All Rights Reserved

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