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Friday, August 10, 2012 - Page updated at 02:30 p.m.

Movie review
'The Imposter' is a riveting, stranger-than-fiction tragedy

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Some stories are indeed stranger than fiction. The true-life tale behind Bart Layton's riveting documentary "The Imposter" was previously adapted last year as a feature film, "The Chameleon." It didn't work, mostly because the story seemed unbelievable. Here, we get the tale from the chameleon's mouth, as it were. It's still practically unbelievable, but you won't be able to look away.

In 1994, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy named Nicholas Barclay never returned home from a basketball game with friends. Three-and-a-half years later, his family was contacted by law-enforcement officials, saying that a teenager meeting Nicholas' description had turned up in Spain.

His sister Carey flew to Spain, identified the young man as her brother, and brought him home. Several months later, he was identified as Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman with a history as a serial impersonator of children. (After his prison sentence for fraud in the U.S., he returned to Europe, only to attempt to assume the identity of another missing teen.)

In "The Imposter," Layton uses some home-movie footage to good effect: We see a bit of the real, very young Nicholas, and some genuinely startling few moments of "Nicholas" arriving at the San Antonio airport, shrouded in a hoodie and looking eerily distant.

The film's a bit padded out by some re-enactments that are capably done but unnecessary — the real thing is quite mesmerizing enough. Bourdin (an elfin 35 at the time of filmmaking) is interviewed on camera; he's earnest yet unapologetic, offering, "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be someone else" as an explanation. Nicholas' sad, troubled family is interviewed, too; they seem bewildered as to how they could have been so fooled, and despondent that somebody they thought was found is still lost to them.

"I washed her brain," says Bourdin of Carey, with a smile that's almost gleeful; a sport to him, a tragedy for them.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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