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Film Review: The Imposter
Dir. Bart Layton
As devastating as it is, extreme grief also offers us a glimpse of just how cold and callous the world around us can be, ripping the proverbial rose-tinted glasses from our field of view and allowing us, finally, to see things as they really are, in all their cold, stark reality. Our reaction to this experience could seem to go one of two ways: You permanently remove the comforting shackles of denial and continue to approach your life with that kind of uncompromising honesty, or you venture down the other direction and bury your head so deep in the sand you can no longer tell the time of day. The tricky question becomes positively identifying which direction you’ve gone.
And here lies the crux of Bart Layton’s gripping documentary about a family’s loss, subsequent hope, and even greater loss. The film concerns the Gibson family of San Antonio, who, back in 1994, suffered the devastation of having one of the youngest children suddenly vanish one night. Searching for him desperately, they had all but completely lost hope after four years, which is when they received extraordinary news: Their son, Nicholas, had reportedly been found — in Spain, of all places — and was waiting at a child services facility for them.
Nearly hysterical with happiness, the older sister of Nicholas, Carey, immediately made plans to pick the boy up and booked her first international flight. Unbeknownst to them at the time, however, the miracle would turn out to be anything but. The “boy” claiming to be Nicholas, was, in fact, Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French vagabond trying to pass himself off as the lost boy in hopes to take on a new identity from which he could feel validated. Skillfully, he had gamed the system into taking him in to a shelter, and taken the time to search out the files of missing American kids, in order to give himself a chance to get stateside.
The problem was, his “sister” was coming to Spain to pick him up and with his dark eyes, brown hair and sizable French accent, he looked and sounded absolutely nothing like the blonde, blue-eyed waifish boy who had gone missing in Texas so many years ago. Certain that the jig was up, “Nicholas” nevertheless dyed his hair and added some elementary tattoos to match the description he’d read about in the boy’s case file. Certain to fail, he met his pretend sister the morning she arrived and prepared for the inevitable recrimination and jail time that would await him for perpetrating such an elaborate ruse. To his shock, however, his sister welcomed him with open arms, and never looked back, bringing him triumphantly home to the rest of his new family without hesitation.
As improbable as the story is, things get even more peculiar stateside, where “Nicholas” meets his family, enrolls in high school, and, seemingly, has everyone fooled, including a befuddled FBI agent, who believes his story of being apprehended by a foreign paramilitary outfit and subjected to rape, torture and facial reconstruction, hook, line and sinker.
Not everyone falls quite so easily in the film. Questions are raised about “Nicholas” almost everywhere but within his own adopted family, who continue to cling to the hope that their boy has been magically returned to them. So much do the family hold onto this obvious fabrication, there grow a rising tide of suspicion that some of the members know more about the real Nicholas’ sudden departure than they have ever lead on.
Layton’s film, with its stream of found footage, slick reenactments and bevy of manipulative camera tricks, walks the razor-line between journalistic documentary and sensationalistic Hollywood melodrama in very thin shoes.
Wherever the film may stray from the sober, journalistic path of the straight doc, Layton utilizes well his significant ace-in-the-hole, Frederic. Endlessly smiling and chuckling at his own bravado, he comes across as a true sociopath, not once worrying about the shattering pain and false hope he was bringing to his new family (and, in fact, once incarcerated, he continued to reach out to parents of missing children, pretending to have valuable info for them about their beloved kids). He makes no bones about the insane manipulations he used to get to America and seems terrifyingly bemused by the whole affair, as if it were some sophomoric prank from his junior year in high school.
By the end, there are a good deal more questions than answers — despite the gnawing suspicions by certain law-enforcement personnel, no one in the family is ever charged with a crime — which is peculiarly fitting. Left to the chaotic self-absorption of its main protagonist, no story would ever have a satisfying closure.