Sept. 5 2012 03:17 PM

Bart Layton's new documentary about a con artist who impersonates a missing boy sounds impossible, but it isn't

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Mysterious con artist Fr?d?ric Bourdin

Anyone with kids knows that when you lose track of them at Chuck E. Cheese's or Target, or even your own home for just a few moments, you're suddenly gripped with a kind of terror so strong that it's practically indescribable. Not knowing where your child is, feeling completely out of control, as cliché as it sounds, is a parent's worst nightmare; even those of us who don't have kids have an understanding of why parents go from zero to panic in a fraction of a second.

We're all terrified of losing our kids, and the unfortunate few who actually go through that experience will do almost anything to be reunited with their children, even if it means believing in something that, to the rest of us, seems unbelievable.

That's what takes place in Bart Layton's new true-crime documentary, The Imposter, which opens at Hillcrest Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 7. Here's the rundown: In 1994, a 13-year-old Texan named Nicholas Barclay went missing, and he wasn't heard from for more than three years. That's when he popped up in a small village in Spain, telling a tale of abduction, sex slavery and escape. Nicholas' sister, Carey, went to Spain and declared that the boy she found there was her missing brother.

It is not a spoiler to tell you— and you may have surmised this from the film's title—that the person this San Antonio family takes into its home is not, in fact, their son. Frédéric Bourdin, the 22-yearold Frenchman who passed himself off as Nicholas for several months, narrates much of the movie. A feature film about the case was made a few years ago.

Layton sets the scenes with reenactments instead of the standard talking heads. That's an interesting way to go, though in some ways it's suspect, because you never know if you're getting the real story. (It should be remembered, however, that the pioneer of documentary reenactments is Errol Morris, one of our premiere documentarians, who used the technique to free a man from Death Row in The Thin Blue Line.) One of the film's more engaging characters is Charlie Parker, a private investigator who had been involved with the search for Nicholas and was suspicious of the official word that the kid had been found.

To hear Parker describe it, it seems like a no-brainer: His family should have known that this person wasn't Nicholas. After all, there were significant physical differences between Bourdin and Nicholas, and his accent sounded French, rather than Spanish. Sure, some of these you might chalk up to the passage of time (he was just 13 when he went missing, remember); others you might think could be overlooked by a family so desperate to learn that their son is alive. More than likely, it's a combination of those things. Layton's film plays out like a thriller, but it also points out that people are fragile creatures who are often willing to lie to themselves to avoid the truth.

Bourdin himself has a theory about why he was able to get away with his ruse for so long, and it implicates the family in Nicholas' disappearance. That would seem to be precisely what a guy like Bourdin would say. He is, after all, a professional con artist, and he's convincing enough that you see why he's had so much success in his profession. At the same time, you must always remember that the director has given a sociopath, who's at once charming and creepy—someone you should automatically assume is an unreliable narrator—a microphone, and while it's interesting to hear what he has to say, he probably shouldn't be believed.
 

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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