Like a Tarnation without the bold low-fi aesthetic, Kimberly Reed’s Prodigal Sons combines a look at the filmmaker’s relationship with a troubled, mentally ill family member and an investigation into her gender and sexual identity. Partaking of the same uncomfortably confessional mode that marked Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 doc as one of the more striking left-field debuts of the decade, Reed’s own first effort mines similarly fraught emotional territory, hitting gut punching highs that move past even Tarnation’s eye-opening exposures, even as it lacks the earlier film’s cinematic inventiveness.
Returning to her home town of Helena, Montana for the first time in 10 years, Reed, who in the interval has transitioned gender, hopes to reconnect with her old classmates and especially her estranged brother Marc who, having had part of his brain removed after a car crash, is prone to dangerous emotional swings. While her old school friends have no trouble accepting her gender change (they last knew her as Paul, the high school football team’s star quarterback), she finds far more difficulty in reestablishing a relationship with Marc as the two quickly fall into their old patterns of guarded hostility. After the adopted Marc discovers that his birth mother was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and he flies to Croatia for a tearful meeting with Welles’s muse Oja Kodar, he seems to forge a new, more secure identity for himself which allows for a temporary understanding with his sister, but it’s not long before he forgets Welles altogether and falls back into his old instability.
A testament to film’s documentary function to record moments of queasy immediacy as well as to Reed’s thoughtful self-analysis, Prodigal Sons alternates the director’s reflections on her own gender-flipped past with intermittently terrifying footage of Marc, who increasingly begins to occupy the film’s center. In his more stable moments, a man capable of great emotional generosity and who seems to accept both his sister (as well as his other, gay brother) without bias, he can just as quickly turn monstrous. In a scene of ghastly potency, Marc breaks up a Christmas family reunion by viciously deriding his siblings’ sexual practices, putting his brother in a chokehold and grabbing a knife from the kitchen before he’s subdued by the arriving police. If there’s a lingering sense that these too-personal moments perhaps ought not to be paraded around on screen for the world to see, it’s somewhat negated by Marc’s own filmed endorsement of the project, but Reed’s lack of interest in addressing the issue seems like a weakness, a failure of her otherwise well-developed instinct for self-consciousness.
For the filmmaker, a trip home is a fraught reunion with a world long rejected, but, prodded by Marc, she’s encouraged to investigate her now fractured sense of identity. In her current life in New York, Reed remains largely closeted as a transgendered person, preferring to make a clean break with her past, but throughout the film she confronts herself with forgotten images and memories, watching tapes of her old football games (in which she no longer recognizes herself) and visiting the city (San Francisco) where she transitioned and where she once lived in an in-between state, appearing as a man to some friends and as a woman to others. Investigating her personal history, she inevitably comes to Marc, but while those two aspects of her past (her male identity, her relationship with her brother) are obviously very closely linked in her mind, she often stretches too far to make the connection. Besides drawing somewhat heavily on cliché (“It looks like a fairy-tale child, but looks can be deceiving”), her narration too often tries to fit the circumstances of her story into a readily digestible schema. But even if her forced thematic links occasionally reduce the complexity of her (and especially Marc’s) experience, they still serve to give shape to a messy store of material, and more importantly, they finally do little to overshadow Reed’s thoughtful, bracing treatment of what amounts to some seriously heavy shit.
Given the reputation Prodigal Sons has built in the last two years, the documentary has no reason looking the way it does on home video. The disc's image may cause motion sickness (edge enhancement abounds and ghosting and combing are visible in spots), but at least the dialogue is clear throughout, hiss- and pop-free even when Marc McKerrow is raising his voice.
On the 12-minute featurette "The Return of Prodigal Sons," Kimberly Reed introduces her film to her hometown church's congregation, revealing how transitioning for her was like climbing out of a wetsuit, and how the making of the film was a means for her to reestablish ties with the town she tried to exorcise from her mind. A second featurette splices footage together from countless Q&As Reed and her mom and girlfriend, among others, partook in during the film's festival circuit. A series of "words from the family" rounds out the disc's extras.
The image on this DVD edition of Prodigal Sons is almost as sad as Marc McKerrow’s life, but this remains of the great documentaries of the last decade.