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When true-crime stories are recounted in documentaries, it's the telling that separates the cable-TV reality-show fodder from the truly arresting drama.
Director Bart Layton's "The Imposter," which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is of the latter variety. It's a dark and moody film that recalls Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" in its gritty atmosphere and in its liberal use of artful dramatization.
The story begins with the case of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who disappeared on his way home from a basketball court in 1994. Three years later, someone surfaced in Linares, Spain, claiming to be Nicholas.
As the title reveals, that person wasn't Nicholas. He was, rather, Frédéric Bourdin, a French-born criminal with a penchant for impersonating teens. How he wound up taking the name and identity of Nicholas is, in Bourdin's to-the-camera accounting, an odd combination of deceit, luck and the willful suspension of disbelief on the part of Nicholas' family.
Layton extensively interviews Bourdin, who tells his story with the dramatic flair of a savvy yarn-spinner. The filmmaker also interviews Nicholas' mom, Beverly Dollarhide, and his sister Carey Gibson who flew to Spain in 1997 and was the first family member to buy into Bourdin's lie that he was Nicholas. Also interviewed are the FBI agent who investigated the case and a Caddy-driving private detective who figured out the lie.
The movie explores the details of Bourdin's increasingly complicated con game, as well as the psychology of grief that would have allowed Nicholas' family to let it happen. Part of that explanation comes from listening to Bourdin, whose patter is so seductive that even when you know what a liar he is, you're still willing to take one final outlandish accusation (a final twist in the heart of the family) at face value.
Layton layers "The Imposter" with powerful images in the dramatic re-creations, as well as a brooding soundscape and a concise pacing that distributes its information with the reserve of a good mystery writer. The result is a twisted true story that's more compelling and more outrageous than a fictional one.
A riveting documentary tells of a master liar, and a grieving family too willing to buy into those lies.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 21.
Rating • R for language.
Running time • 99 minutes.