My friend and I like documentaries about crazy people, and she highly recommended this, which I had heard good things about. Still, hard to drag oneself to the theater for something akin to a magazine article, especially when they're all going to show up on Netflix, a venue that seems a bit more appropriate. This one is pretty good, and has an excellent final punchline, but the incomplete nature of the story leaves it at that "interesting article" level instead of elevating it to something really essential.
So in 1994, thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished from San Antonio, Texas. Three years and four months later, this fellow Frederic Bourdain, who was 23, had made himself up to look like a teen and was taken in by authorities in Linares, Spain. He was essentially homeless, so by posing as a teen he thought he would be put in a juvenile home, where he could live for a while. He said in passing that he was American, which caused them to search the Missing and Exploited Children database, which concluded that he must be... Nicholas Barclay. They contact the family in Texas, who come visit him, and soon are affirming that he is their missing son and brother. For Bourdain, who was drifting and wanted all over Europe by Interpol, here was a chance to escape and, miraculously, get US citizenship. He accepted.
His story was that he had been abducted and subjected to all sorts of traumatic sexual abuse that transformed his looks and robbed him of his memory. He also claims to have forgotten how to speak English and picked up a Spanish accent. Still, his adoptive mother and sister, as well as numerous others, accepted that he was their close relative. During this whole time we are invited to speculate about why they would be so willing to believe such a thing. Especially since he appears to them most of the time with obviously bleached hair, wearing a baseball cap, dark glasses and scarf. And speaking with a Spanish accent.
SPOILERS > > >
Meanwhile, this private detective Charlie Parker (not THAT Charlie Parker), thinks something is fishy, and starts investigating. What he sees is that Frederic's ears are different than Nicholas', not to mention that kids learn their accents early and there's no way even years of trauma would change that. At the same time, Frederic, now enrolled in high school, talks about his trauma (he has a lurid story about being gang-raped by high-ranking military officials, which sounds a bit more Honcho magazine than reality) but doesn't display the signs of trauma. They alert the FBI, who start investigating, and finally inform the family that they have a possible criminal in their home. But you know what? The family doesn't want to hear it.
Mom adamantly refuses a DNA test that would prove the whole thing once and for all. The sister starts showing him photos and pointedly asking "Do you remember?" which is seen as coaching him. Now, why is the family so adamant about all this? Well, some have suspicions that Nicholas didn't disappear... but was killed. By the family. If that we're the case, Frederic would establish their innocence and let them get away with it. So the amazing story is this con artist who ends up ensconced in this family of killers.
Thing is, despite digging (literal digging in their yard), no evidence of the murder is found. So we don't know anything. At the end of the film we get numerous instances of the impersonations and crimes Frederic has committed, and the movie ends with footage of him dancing like Michael Jackson, a fitting and evocative image. But that's all we get.
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So ultimately it feels a little incomplete, which can take its toll on movie satisfaction. Really the only thing here is the story, which reading a magazine article (or this review) can do for you without having to sit through the movie. The result is that the film adds very little (although you do get to see footage of the family and Frederic), which means that it doesn't really have a compelling reason to exist as a film, as opposed to an article. In retrospect, I'd rather have spent 30 minutes reading an article, as opposed to 90 minutes watching a movie. And the fact that we get to the end without any real resolution also affects one's feeling of whether it is worthwhile.
Throughout, we have the real Frederic narrating his case, and also appearing in reenactments of key scenes, which raises a lot of questions about how much his participation in the film affected its outcome--questions that are not at all addressed. It also seems--though we never find out for sure--that family members also participated in reenactments, which raises a LOT of questions about everyone's level of participation here, and calls into question their motivations for appearing in a film about what is supposed to be a painful, criminally-damning episode for them. This would add a whole layer of interest to the film, but all these questions are never addressed, and thus keep viewers at a distance, since we can't be sure we can trust the filmmakers. I think we needed to have a big explanation up front about who the people in the reenactments are, as well as the details of Frederic agreeing to star in a documentary about his crimes. Is it just megalomania? Looks that way, but we'll never know.
So, interesting story, but the lack of conclusiveness and nagging questions about the subject's participation drag at its level of viewing satisfaction, to the point where, well, couldn't we have just read an article?
If you want, but it won't offer you much you didn't get from reading this review.