“I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the right word I’d use for a movie like this, but for lack of a better one … enjoy,” British director Bart Layton said before Tuesday’s SXSW screening of his film The Imposter at the Paramount Theater. 

Layton’s documentary recounts the story of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen-year-old from San Antonio who disappeared in 1994, only to resurface in Linares, Spain, more than three years later. Or did he? 

Given the film’s title, it’s no spoiler to say it wasn’t him, though if you’re not familar with the story (which was covered by Connie Chung for CBS News at the time and by David Grann for the New Yorker in 2008), it’s certainly much better to know nothing.

The film’s first trick is that it’s obvious within the first few minutes that the damaged, narcissistic, French-accented title character–although a wildly gifted confidence man–could not have possibly been Barclay. But that only makes you want to know just how the family (and several U.S. government officials) came to think he was.

“The only thing he had in common with me was he had five fingers on each hands,” says the black-haired, brown-eyed imposter, who at the time all of this happened, in 1997, was 23-years old. Nicholas Barclay is a blue-eyed blonde who was thirteen when he disappeared.

And yet, Barclay’s sister took her first overseas flight (“Where in Texas is Linares?” she initially wondered) to retrieve him, and his mother welcomed his return. 

The film’s second trick is showing us that how it all went down, and what the family really thought, is not what you would expect, and there’s just no way to know what’s really true. Layton certainly didn’t.
“We tried to take you on a very similar and equally bewildering journey to the one that we went on when we made the film,” he said. “So I feel like you guys are as well-placed to try and figure out what happened as we are.”
The Imposter is not really a film about the Barclay case, he stressed, but rather, about “self-deception, as well as deception–the truth that we construct for ourselves, and the lies that we choose to believe.”

Indeed, everybody in the movie–the family, the imposter, a U.S. diplomat, the FBI, and San Antonio private detective Charlie Parker–sees mostly what they want to see. Their personal versions of the story Layton tells fits with what they need emotionally, or with how they see the world at large, to the point where they are also unconvinced by contradictory evidence.

The whole story seemed to exist “more in a cinematic world than the real world,” Layton said, which is why he shot and structured it like a film noir. Detective Parker steals the movie as a less seedy real-life version of M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple, while the stylish re-enactment scenes can’t help but recall Erroll Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. During the Q&A, Layton said he didn’t even like to call them “re-enactments,” as all of the events he dramatized are based entirely on each interviewee’s point-of-view.
Layton also said that Barclay’s family had seen the film before it played at Sundance, “and they were pleased that it was an honest account of their experience, and they felt very relieved that the things they felt they needed to say are in the film.”
Of course, that’s just his personal truth.