Bart Layton’s slippery debut documentary examines the crazy mind games involved in being an imposter.
Had it been pitched as a piece of fiction, Bart Layton’s debut feature documentary would be laughed out of the production office. In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in San Antonio, Texas.
In 1997, a grown Frenchman who was washed up in Linares, Spain, presented himself as Barclay, accounting for his continental leap with a ballsy yarn. Despite boasting a French accent and looking nothing like the missing boy, the Spanish police, FBI and – astonishingly – Nicholas’s own family were convinced.
Layton tells the story of how the imposter was given US citizenship and brought ‘home’ to his ‘family’ in Texas by using interviews, home-movie footage and reconstructions. With present-day confessionals shot in dimly-lit rooms, the family refer to their lost boy and the imposter as 'Nicholas', a touch that brings to life both the fraud and the parallel reality it briefly but wonderfully created.
Layton shuns the opportunity to string us along as well. The payoff for his candour is a narrative which is overloaded with questions. 'Why?' is the big one. Enter the film’s chief interviewee, the imposter, now in his late thirties. He gives cheerful, semi-plausible accounts of his insane behaviour, his delight at assuming the identity of Nicholas after a history of belonging nowhere is apparently still felt.
Yet while the imposter is a great and surprisingly sympathetic screen presence, nothing he says prompts a light-bulb moment.
Twists confuse things further. A general air of bafflement takes hold, augmented by the eccentricity of all involved. Nicholas' gravel-voiced mother, the gloriously named Beverly Dollarhide, is possessed of the mantra, "I try not to think". Authority figures all have Fargo-style doolally streaks. And at the moment of the film’s most dramatic reveal, one PI Parker is comically sidetracked by diner hot cakes. Agent Dale Cooper would be proud.
Layton relishes the absurd, confident that there is nothing that can diminish the strength and strangeness of the story he has found. Instead of earnestly trying to resolve the unresolvable, he gives the brisk lowdown on salient points then goes no further, as if to say, ‘see what I mean?’ His film is accomplished and creative and intentionally generates more questions than it answers. This is frustrating but that's life, particularly in this case.
There’s a lot of excited buzz, even if the poster’s a bit of an imposter.
Mind too boggled to enjoy it.
The mysteries stick with you. In 20 years time, someone will leap up and shout, “Eureka!”