Keith Staskiewicz
July 13, 2012 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In 1994, a 13-year-old boy in Texas named Nicholas Barclay went missing. Three years later, Frédéric Bourdin — a then-23-year-old French Algerian — claimed to be Barclay, despite the fact that the two looked nothing alike. Astonishingly, everyone bought it. Bourdin was given a U.S. passport, and he flew to the States and lived with Barclay’s family for nearly five months, until a private investigator revealed Bourdin — a.k.a. the Chameleon — to be a fraud, and a Texas judge sentenced him to six years in jail. ”It almost seems like a real-life Coen brothers movie,” says Bart Layton, the director who has turned this tale of subterfuge and manipulation into a documentary called The Imposter.

When Layton first encountered the story in a Spanish magazine, he sensed it was fertile ground for a film. So he arranged to meet Bourdin in London and was immediately struck by the master dissembler’s skills. ”He can be charming, he can be endearing, he can be childlike. So you feel you need to look after him,” says Layton. ”But at the same time, he can be repellent.” While Bourdin took to the project quickly, Barclay’s family was harder to persuade. And some believe that they may have reason to keep quiet — namely, that they were responsible for their son’s disappearance. The Imposter presents that theory without editorializing. (The family did not respond to EW’s request for comment.)

Layton ultimately won the Barclays’ cooperation by offering them the opportunity to tell their side of the story. He even screened the movie for them before premiering it at Sundance in January. ”I was nervous, but they felt it was honest and true to their experience,” he says. The director has yet to screen it for Bourdin, and though he plans to, he isn’t sure it will be as well received. ”He has a history of being anti–everything he has been involved in. It kind of makes sense. If you’re him, you want the freedom to write and rewrite your history as it suits you.”

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