The story that unravels in Bart Layton's documentary "The Imposter" isn't just implausible, it borders on the ridiculous. It's riddled with convenient coincidences and too-obvious clues, and its last-minute hero, a crusty private investigator, is a cliché straight out of a dime novel.
As fiction, it would never fly. But "The Imposter" happens to be true, and it's a jaw-dropper.
The case of missing teenager Nicholas Barclay has been written about and televised before, but it's likely to come as a stunner to most viewers of "The Imposter." Barclay, 13, vanished from San Antonio, Texas, in 1993. More than three years later, authorities informed his family that he'd resurfaced about 5,000 miles away in Linares, Spain. He had changed: For starters, his blonde hair and blue eyes were now black. He had a noticeable 5 o'clock shadow. More oddly, he now spoke with a strong French accent.
The reaction of his mother and sister, along with that of embassy officials and FBI investigators, was basically this: "Huh!" And so it was that Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian with a near-psychotic need for a loving family -- any family -- found a new life as a Texas teenager.
That, however, is only half the story. "The Imposter" keeps going into places you'd never expect. Though the film has the familiar, cliffhanger rhythm of a television special, it's always compelling, sometimes funny and occasionally chilling. Layton, the director, carefully parcels out clues and artfully builds his plot, but he also sticks to facts and maintains his objectivity -- not always a given in documentaries these days. "The Imposter" ends with a question, but it's also a hugely satisfying mystery.
PLOT A documentary about the 1997 case of a con man who convinced a Texas family that he was their missing child. RATING R (language, adult themes)
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema.
BOTTOM LINE A well-crafted true-crime story with colorful villains, dogged heroes and twists that defy belief.