SXSW 2012 Review: THE IMPOSTER
A teenage boy disappears from his home in San Antonio where he lives with his simple family – a group of people we no doubt find familiar from our own neighborhoods and grocery stores and maybe even our own families; a working class family with good intentions and flaws like so many of us. A few years later, a teenage boy is found shivering and alone in a phone booth in Spain and he claims to be Nicholas Barclay, the missing teen from San Antonio. His accent is French. His eyes are brown, and not blue like Nicholas’. He is too tall. He looks older than he should. Still, Barclay’s sister brings him home to the family and they embrace him as their own, assimilating him into their lives.
The only real mystery in THE IMPOSTER is how this family and the government authorities involved didn’t realize this wasn’t Nicholas. The documentary opens with Frederic Bourdin, the French imposter and fake Nicholas, explaining that for as long as he remembered, he wanted to be someone else. As the layers unfold, Frederic demonstrates the ways in which he was easily able to convince everyone that he was Nicholas, including an absurd story about a devious government entity that held him captive, sexually abused him, and changed his eye color from blue to brown so his family couldn’t recognize him. And still, this family believes it.
For much of the documentary - which feels at times unintentionally humorous and thus borderline cruel in its impeachment of stereotypical southern ignorance and the under-education of the working class - it’s easy to castigate this family as blatantly moronic, but THE IMPOSTER finds a much more interesting narrative in the final third: Is this family stupid, or are they really just willfully ignorant, desperate for closure and eager to fill the void left by the real Nicholas?
The unintentional hilarity thankfully doesn’t detract too much from the more intriguing questions at hand, but things veer into a territory so absurd by act three that one wonders if this is a real documentary or Christopher Guest’s latest satire. A private investigator is introduced to the mix by way of a camera poised in the passenger seat as he drives around town to Johnny Cash (was this a decision by the filmmakers or was this at the request of Loose Cannon, PI?) Our friendly neighborhood PI wants us to know he doesn’t play by the rules of no fancy government branch, and he’s got a hunch this Nicholas isn’t the real Nicholas at all, along with some more troubling allegations that seem legitimate when compared to the utter insanity going on in the Barclay household courtesy of Monsieur Bourdin.
The film will compel the viewer to audibly react, much like one does when watching an insultingly stupid horror film – “No, idiot! Behind you,” “Are you kidding me?! How are you not seeing this,” and “CHRIST ON A CRACKER, YOU MORON, YOU DESERVE THIS NOW,” and while that last hyperbolic outburst is certainly okay within the context of watching a horror film with fictional characters, it’s troubling to think you might find any of the misfortunes that befall this family deserved because it’s hard to empathize with stupid, willful or otherwise; still, documentarian Bart Layton does an incredible job of finding the empathy and the gray area where we would normally cast apathy and judgment with little hesitation. THE IMPOSTER is outlandish, absurd, and just plain baffling – and even worse when you realize that this is the gullible world we inhabit.