Thursday, March 18, 2010

Prodigal Sons

You've got four hours before the movie closes out it's Boston run. It's not bad.

Prodigal Sons

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

At some point in Prodigal Sons, likely a different point for everybody, one has to wonder about the making of it. I don't mean that parts of this documentary feel staged - that's not the case - but it seems odd nobody ever seems to demand the camera be turned off during a family argument. When you consider that the filmmaker is also one of the main subjects, it's hard to imagine the camera not affecting the action, but if it does, nobody gives any sign of it.

Consider what seems to be the original thrust of the documentary, filmmaker Kim Reed returning to her home town of Helena, Montana, for the first time in years to attend her 20-year class reunion. This is a big deal because she was born Paul McKerrow, and had in fact been a football star as a teen, before leaving for San Francisco, transition, and New York. Everybody seems to be pretty cool with it, certainly far more accepting than Kim had feared. It feels good to watch, and we don't really have time to wonder if the folks Kim shows are on their best behavior for the cameras or the subset that was even willing to be on camera, because the focus soon begins to fall on Kim's brother Marc.

Marc was adopted when Kim's parents Carl and Loren McKerrow believed they could not have children, only to conceive Paul soon after. Held back a year in pre-school, Marc would wind up in the same class as Paul, creating a certain amount of tension between the two, and an automobile accident at the age of twenty-one left him with a cranial injury necessitating the removal of part of his brain. It's left him prone to mood swings and even violence. Soon after the reunion, he learns the identity of his biological mother just in time to go to her funeral. And as if his life was not already surreal enough, that mother was Rebecca Welles - daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

The contrast between Marc and Kim is at the heart of the film, and as much as a story about a post-op transgendered person returning home would have been interesting on its own, the revelations about Marc make for fascinating parallels. Every shot of their faces is an invitation to search for someone else (Paul in Kim's case, Orson in Marc's) that we might not have seen otherwise. Even when Ms. Reed doesn't spell things out - perhaps especially when she doesn't spell things out - there's an intriguing narrative to the opposite ways they deal with their identity crises, their envy of each other's DNA, and how each points at certain actions and says "that's not the real me".

Unfortunately, real life doesn't often give us the neat, perfectly parallel narratives that a fictional film would, especially where brain trauma is concerned, as the last third or so of Prodigal Sons demonstrates. Marc does some terrible things, and the last act of the movie becomes "how do we deal with him?" This is interesting in its own way, certainly - it is an extraordinarily raw look at how terrifying the loss of control can be - but it pushes the complexity of Marc and Kim backward. Now Kim is mostly the dutiful child, with Marc the problem sibling to be pitied as much as feared, because he can't help his brain chemistry. As a filmmaker, Reed tries to keep that thread alive, noting that in a strictly clinical sense, she would be considered just as mentally ill as her brother. But as visceral and personal as this is (too personal, perhaps; this is about where I can't help but wonder why one would tape this and then share the footage with the world), it's not quite the same sort of food for thought as the middle section of the film.

Is it a fatal weakness? Not at all; it's just life not working by a script. It does seem a little self-serving; we see Marc at his worst and Kim at her best, and it's only natural to wonder about that given that Kim Reed is the director, producer, and editor of the film, even though in those capacities she would easily be able to say that the final third is too powerful to leave on the cutting room floor. Still, the film is at its best in the middle, when Reed-the-filmmaker seems to allow a measure of doubt about the actions of Kim-the-subject, and that's the part that makes Prodigal Sons worth a look.

Also at eFilmCritic

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