When a dog runs away, it’s like losing a family member. So when a good Samaritan returns a stray that doesn’t quite match up to the “missing” photo on the telephone pole, the grieving owners might accept the comparable canine as “close enough” to fill the painfully empty void in their household.

The Imposter

At The Michigan

When a boy goes missing and someone shows up on the doorstep claiming to be the long lost son, no matter how deeply the family desires reconciliation, “close enough” is a federal crime.

In “The Imposter,” a new documentary, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappears without a trace from a rural Texas town in 1997. Three years later, Frédéric Bourdin needs a new identity to evade legal trouble in Spain, so he impersonates the missing boy. With a little hair dye and lot of lies, he convinces the authorities and the family that he’s the would-be 16-year-old. But Bourdin’s precocious pretending becomes problematic when a private investigator and an FBI agent question his authenticity.

The intrigue, apart from the hair-raising subject matter, derives from a complicated and flat-out disturbing villain. Bourdin’s raw veracity reveals a blatant lack of remorse for his actions. Instead, he plays the sympathy card to justify his behavior: What else was a poor, scared kid, living desperately on the streets supposed to do? The answer: anything else.

While begging for empathy, Bourdin emanates pride for his deception. He showcases his cunning abilities and manipulative accomplishments in a positive light, creating complex emotional tension. But his unsettling demeanor is a small price to pay for a glaring, untainted look into the mind of a sociopath. Now that’s just cool.

Timely crosscutting between “sitting and talking” and flashbacks, film editor Andrew Hulme (“The American”) moves the story along at ample speed. The way he juxtaposes the family’s devastating details of grief with Bordin’s haughty malevolence heightens the battle between good and evil.

The reenactments are effective, tasteful and rationed proportionately with clips from the family video reel. Actual footage shows Beverly Dollarhide, Nicholas’s mother, embracing Bourdin, convinced she’s reunited with her son. The dramatic irony is excruciatingly painful — the audience knows she’s hugging a perfect stranger who’s taking advantage of her vulnerability, as he hides beneath a hat, sunglasses and scarves.

But this documentary earns more than simply style points for an enthralling plot, a chilling villain and an artfully edited array of footage. It reveals the devastating impact of loss, a fragile and highly ubiquitous element of the human condition, for real people rather than a cast of characters. Nicholas’s family, utterly broken and desperate to regain their beloved boy, undoubtedly buys Bourdin’s act despite the numerous red flags: a different eye color, a new accent and though Bourdin looks nothing like the childhood photos, Nicholas’s own sister claims that he has their Uncle Ed’s nose. The pretentious phony preaches, “They pretended as much as I did, or even more.”

Documentaries educate while they entertain, and “The Imposter” leaves the audience with a lesson learned: The human need to alleviate pain and emotional strife has the power to trump reason and overshadow rationality. To reduce their suffering, people see what they want to see, even if it’s an imposter.

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