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film review

You may already have received this astonishing memo from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department. That's because the utterly bizarre story made national news when it broke, has since provided much magazine fodder, and popped up only two years ago adapted into a dramatic feature. Now it receives the documentary treatment and, in the devilishly manipulative hands of director Bart Layton, what a treatment it is – the weirdness just gets weirder.

First, the Ripley-esque facts. Back in 1994, Nicholas Barclay – blonde, blue-eyed, only 13 – disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas. A long 28 months later, the family receives a phone call from a small town in distant Spain: The boy has turned up. In truth, he hasn't. It's a 23-year-old man, Frédéric Bourdin, posing as the boy and claiming to have been kidnapped into a sex ring. However, thinking Nicholas found, his sibling Carey flies to Spain, whereupon she actually identifies Bourdin as her brother – despite his brown eyes, dark stubble, French accent and failure to recognize family photos. In her view, his changed appearance and faded memory are just a function of his trauma.

On the strength of Carey's identification, the U.S. embassy issues him a passport and the two fly back for the homecoming. There, Nicholas's mother, Beverly, also embraces him as her own. Investigating the crime of the boy's abduction, a local FBI agent interviews Bourdin, who pours out a lurid account of a military cabal engaged in torture, rape and prostitution. The agent swallows the yarn. Others do not. A psychologist rejects Bourdin's claim, as does a private investigator hired by Hard Copy to get a scoop. A dogged fellow, he questions why the family members are so eager to accept this obvious imposter, and begins to wave a homicidal flag, wondering about their involvement in Nicholas's disappearance. Then – wait for it – Bourdin starts to wonder too.

Okay, take a breath and ponder the obvious: In the annals of forged identity flicks, this is a towering Everest, dwarfing the deceivers in the likes of Catch Me If You Can and F for Fake. But, since others have beaten him to the tale, Layton faces the problem of how to spin it fresh. Well, he rises to the challenge and more, proving to be an adept forger himself – expertly deploying noirish re-enactments to set the mood, simulating the crackle of a bad telephone line, cross-cutting judiciously to generate suspense.

His most successful trope, though, is his most conventional: the talking head at the centre of the piece, the one that belongs to Bourdin. Looking darkly straight at the camera, he details how he pulled off the original scam in Spain, how he "washed the brain" of sister Carey, and how, ensconced as Nicholas in the Texas family, he "didn't need to be Columbo to put the pieces together – they killed him." To say the least, the guy is an unreliable narrator, but this much is clear: He's reliably creepy.

But so are the family members, especially Beverly, who ain't exactly June Cleaver. Domestic disturbances regularly put her home on the San Antonio police beat. Also, well after the boy's disappearance, her older son Jason died of a drug overdose, and she admits to more than a passing acquaintance with illicit substances. Her face is drawn, her eyes glazed, her voice uninflected, her whole manner further ratchets up the creep-quotient. In the end, you leave this film in urgent need of a cleansing shower – Layton has done his job well.

Yet maybe too well, since the doc, so keen to envelop us in the narrative's sheer unlikelihood, seems to forget what's really at stake here. Almost lost in the tabloid's tawdry twists is the lost boy himself. A 13-year-old child is gone, and his absence isn't weird or lurid or stranger-than-fiction – it's simply tragic.

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