‘The Imposter’: 99-minute ‘without a trace’ mystery with no answer

When director Bart Layton stumbled upon a real-life case in which a missing child appears to be recovered three years after his disappearance, he found the perfect story to portray in his documentary, “The Imposter.”

Told solely through narration from interviews, “The Imposter” revolves around two separate narratives: the disappearance of 13-year-old Nick Barclays from Antonio, Texas, in 1994 and the story of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman who posed as teenaged runaways across Europe. When Bourdin pretends to be Nick, three years after Nick disappeared, the stories of Frederic and the Barclays family intersect, and the Barclays family welcome Bourdin into their home in Texas.
Since the real Nick disappeared, the audience cannot discover what really happened to the boy, so there is a speculative element to “The Imposter.” The narrative structure of the film creates a sense of mystery, and the viewers are trying to figure out what happened to Nick as the story bounces back and forth between Nick and Bourdin. This is an effective technique to create a sense of drama for viewers who may not be familiar with the story, but it can be confusing when the characters are first introduced.

For a story about Nick, the visuals are limited to photographs and amateur family home videos where he is seen goofing off with a camera. The filmmakers attempt to solve their dilemma by telling Nick’s story through Nick’s sister, Carey Gibson; his mother, Beverly Dollarhide; and his uncle, Bryan Gibson to reveal what Nick was really like as well as the circumstances of his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Frederic’s story is also difficult to illustrate. To solve this problem, the filmmakers induct a cast of silent actors as placeholders to dramatize the events Frederic relays in his interviews. Adam O’Brian plays Frederic when he is in a shelter in Spain, while Anna Ruben plays Carey when she goes to Spain to pick up whom she thinks is Nick, but is really Frederic. The actors move the pacing of the film, and separate it from the monotony of interviews.

The dramatizations were a clever way to illustrate the story; however, Bourdin wasn’t the only ‘imposter’ in the film. Sometimes the visuals didn’t match the storyline. During scenes when the re-enactors of the Barclay family and Bourdin are driving around San Antonio, mountains are visible in the background; mountains are not consistent with the geography in San Antonio. The mountains as well as the end credits indicate that the reenactments were shot in various parts of Arizona, not Texas, which lessens the film’s credibility.

If there is any truth to “The Imposter,” viewers learn that Layton knows how to direct a good story.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.

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