Thanks to the efforts of directors like Morgan Spurlock and Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for Superman"), documentaries have gained more popularity over the years. Documentaries have moved away from their legacy of dull tedium and become one of the most exciting genres of film, constantly showing the ability to take topics that most audiences would not usually find interesting and turning them into cinematic gold.
That's not always the case, though. Sometimes, a story is so fascinating that all a documentarian has to do is roll film. Case in point: Bart Layton's "The Imposter," a new doc at the Milwaukee Film Festival that plays like a thriller.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappears walking back to his San Antonio home. Three years later, the police in Spain call his family to let say that they miraculously found their son. However, when he returns home, the local police begin to question Nicholas, who arrives in town with a strong French accent and the wrong-colored eyes.
It turns out they were right to be suspicious, as "Nicholas Barclay" turns out to be a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, who somehow convinced multiple police departments and even the missing child's family that he was their long-lost son.
Obviously, considering the film's title (and the fact that the story made national news), Bourdin's trickery isn't exactly a twist. Instead, Layton goes into the minds of his subjects, including the shifty French fake himself, who through an insightful interview describes his entire mindset and strategy during the debacle in incredible detail.
Much of "The Imposter"'s fascinating story is told with a combination of interviews and reenactments. In most cases, reenactments are to be feared, normally combining fake-looking drama with hammy acting to take the audience completely out of the story. That's not the case with "The Imposter." Instead of being an afterthought, the slick, shadowy reenactments are feature film quality, making it hard to believe that it's a documentary and not a stylish, heart-pumping Hollywood-produced mystery.
In most cases, it's better than most of Hollywood's latest batch of mystery tales. Though the audience knows Bourdin has to get caught eventually, it's remarkably intense to watch the imposter's crafty web of lies come together and then slowly fall apart. No thanks to the family, though, who seem shockingly eager to accept their new son despite the glaring differences.
Midway through "The Imposter," in fact, Layton takes Bourdin off the hot seat and puts the family there. How could they have not seen this wasn't Nicholas? Did their desire to get their son back make them blind, or is it something more sinister? It's a creepy turn of events that adds even more intrigue to an already riveting real-life story.
It's often said that real life can be more dramatic than anything a screenwriter could come up with, and "The Imposter" proves it. With its band of complex characters, sleek storytelling and a compelling mystery that only gets more bizarre as it goes along, Bart Layton's film is the best thriller Hollywood wishes it could've come up with.
"The Imposter" has three more showings at the Milwaukee Film Festival: Sept. 29 at 4:30, Oct. 2 at 9:45 and Oct. 5 at 2:15.
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