A multilayered portrait of immense physical, emotional and psychological change, Kimberly Reed’s Prodigal Sons charts the filmmaker’s high school reunion homecoming to Helena, Montana, a trip made uncomfortable by the fact that Reed left the state a man (and star quarterback, no less) named Paul, and now returns years later a transgendered woman. Her documentary is thus concerned with the intricate process of self-definition via confronting the past, although it’s one focused not just on herself, but on the adopted older brother, Marc McKerrow, whom she reconnects with after a decade apart. Even more than his sister, Marc is a man scarred and haunted by his history – specifically, an automotive head injury that left him severely handicapped, robbed him of his original self and his bright future, and exacerbated his conflicted feelings over Kimberley/Paul, whom he’d both resented and secretly idolized as a boy. “I felt like Marc would have given anything to be the man I would have given anything not to be,” Kim astutely notes, and it’s clear from their interactions that the unstable Marc views her decision to become transgendered as a cruel negation of the brother he envied and loved and, even more so, as an act that, in a roundabout way, belittled his envy and love as somehow confused or misplaced.
Part fly-on-the-wall verité account, part self-analytic reflection, Reed’s film exposes familial wounds and tumult with such rawness that it occasionally approaches exploitation. Yet her unvarnished footage of Marc’s increasingly violent outbursts, as well as of her valiant struggles to make amends with both her sibling and her own masculine identity, never proves unduly manipulative; rather, Prodigal Sons proves a riveting, heart-wrenching autobiographical snapshot of people in constant states of transition, transformation and actualization. At the midway point, a bombshell is dropped [spoilers follow] – Marc, it amazingly turns out, is actually the biological grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Rather than assuaging his frustrations over his unsatisfying past, however, this newly discovered lineage instead appears to merely remind Marc of the potential greatness (also spied in his innate skill at piano-playing) that was lost to him through his accident and ensuing mental illness. With deftly employed archival clips further capturing a sense of the past’s lingering presence in both Kim and Marc’s difficult lives (as well as the continual need to reassess it), Marc emerges as the almost unbearably tragic epicenter of Reed’s moving non-fiction film, a no-gloss, false hope-free depiction of people attempting to understand, and come to terms with, their tormented selves and the equally damaged ones they love.