Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared in San Antonio in 1994. Forty months later, he turned up in Spain and was reunited with his family. Or was that really Nicholas? The title of this padded, preeningly slick, but at times fascinating documentary already tells you the answer. So “The Imposter” doesn’t concentrate on who, but why, how — and how long.
There have been at least two feature films, both based on actual events, about an imposter pretending to be a missing family member. In “The Return of Martin Guerre,” set in 16th-century France, it’s a husband accepted by a lonely wife. In “Changeling,” set in 1920s Los Angeles, it’s a son accepted by a grieving mother (Angelina Jolie, no less). Both films share with “The Imposter” a fundamental emotional dynamic: the desire of family members to believe in the return of a loved one well beyond reasonable (let alone justified) doubt. Several people in the documentary express incredulity that the boy’s family would accept the fake Nicholas — or even mock them for doing so. But who in similar circumstances wouldn’t let belief overcome skepticism?
Actually, “The Imposter” has more in common with another feature film (and play). Imagine “Six Degrees of Separation” told from the point of view of Will Smith’s character. Frédéric Bourdin was the 23-year-old Frenchman who pretended to be the 16-year-old American. Much of the movie consists of interviews the filmmakers conducted with him. With his sociopath’s charm, Bourdin is utterly compelling — and increasingly creepy. He’d impersonated others before and would do so again. We hear what drove him to do it (wanting to be in a family, wanting to see America) and how he did it (dyeing his hair blond, getting tattoos to match Nicholas’s).
Bourdin couldn’t change his eye color (brown; Nicholas’s eyes were strikingly blue), though he did offer a cockamamie story about the sex ring that had abducted him putting acid in his eyes, which darkened them. Nor could he change the shape of his ears. It was the ears that tipped off a San Antonio private investigator named Charlie Parker. Parker, in his good-old-boy way, is as riveting a screen presence as Bourdin. He has a big gut and white hair and wears suspenders (does Charles Durning need a stand-in?) and loves the camera just as much as the camera loves him.
How Parker came to be involved in the case was that “Hard Copy” had hired him to check out the story. It had already become that much of a sensation. Bourdin had succeeded too well. The price of pulling off such an audacious impersonation was public attention — which doomed it to failure. Even so, it took several months before he was forced to admit who he was.
During that time, a few people began to wonder if maybe Nicholas’s family had a motive beyond wishful thinking for accepting Bourdin. This question comes to dominate the final quarter of the movie but is left unresolved. Whatever happened to Nicholas remains unknown. The question does give Parker an opportunity to pick up a shovel, though.
He’s not the only one who can use a shovel. There may be only one absolute rule to storytelling (in any medium): Trust your material. If your substance isn’t any good, no amount of style can compensate; and if it is good, don’t have style get in the way of it. The substance in “The Imposter” is very good, which makes the amount of stylization egregious. Slow-motion, dropped-out sound, time-lapse photography, doctored audio: They’re all here. The filmmakers also use a device one might call vocal crossovers. Bourdin begins to speak, and then we hear the words come from the actor playing him in a reenactment (or “drama sequences,” as the closing credits rather primly call them), or vice versa. The technique is slick. And like the rest of the stylistic showiness, it’s also unnecessary, even gratuitous, and frequently confusing.
Beverly Dollarhide, Nicholas’s mother, says of the period after her son’s disappearance, “My main goal in life at that time was not to think.” Apparently, the filmmakers have taken a cue from her. At least her unwillingness to think makes sense.