South by Southwest 2012 was an undeniable success. The final day in Austin saw not only the most fascinating and disturbing documentary of the festival, but also the announcement of the jury and audience awards.
The most impressive thing about Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter is how much attention has been given to the film without any of the myriad twists and surprises being spoiled for the audience. The film’s story would be engaging regardless of who was behind the camera simply because of the absurdity involved, but Layton, a highly skilled and intelligent director, raises The Imposter to the level of true art.
In 1993, a boy named Nicholas Barclay went missing from his San Antonio neighborhood in the middle of a sunny afternoon. After years of searching and hoping, Nicholas’s family finally accepted they would probably never see him again. Almost impossibly, though, they get a call almost four years later from a children’s home in Spain, saying they believe they have found Nicholas and that he wants to come home. Nicholas’s sister, Carey Ruben, hops on a plane and brings Nicholas back home to Texas.
The only problem was that the boy they brought home wasn’t Nicholas. In fact, he wasn’t a boy, but a grown man with a shady past who was about to wreak havoc on the close-knit Texas family. The story of Nicholas Barclay and the strange events that transpired in 1997 and early 1998 made national news. The Chameleon, a movie based on the events, was made in 2010, but any fictionalized story would be too unbelievable to take seriously. Layton’s film, however, provides nothing but the facts, many of which even the best screenwriter in the world wouldn’t be able to create out of thin air.
The film bounces back and forth from Texas to Spain as “Nicholas” prepares to come home. Layton, a confident and patient filmmaker, paces the film masterfully as he reveals one strange twist after another. Without a doubt, The Imposter is one of the most puzzling documentaries ever made—and would be completely ridiculous if it wasn’t all true. | Matthew F. Newlin