Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: "Prodigal Sons"

Movies, much like life, don't always turn out the way you planned. That much, and more, is true of Kimberly Reed's fascinating and surprising documentary, Prodigal Sons. What started out as a document of her adopted brother Marc McKerrow's quest to discover his roots, instead became a searing portrait of an unconventional family, where sibling rivalry, mental illness, and old wounds threaten to tear them all apart.

Kimberly was once Marc's younger brother, Paul, before moving away from home and undergoing a sex change operation after she graduated high school. In the ensuing years, their youngest brother, Todd, would come out as gay, and Marc would deal with a brain problem that resulted in having to be partially lobotomized. While the procedure cured him of his seizures, it changed his personality forever, resulting in everything from general obnoxiousness to violent mood swings, as Marc continues to live in the past, a time where he was well liked, popular, and part of a seemingly idyllic family.

Years later, Kimberly, former Valedictorian and football player, is returning to the small Montana town where she grew up for the first time since her transformation to attend her high school reunion, and also to try to repair her relationship with Marc. It is during this trip that Marc discovers he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, a revelation that at long last provides him with his own history away from his sister's shadow. So Kimberly follows follows Marc to Croatia where they will meet with Oja Kodar, Welles' longtime companion, collaborator, and star of the director's F for Fake.

What ensues is a deeply personal and intimate look at one family's quest to bury the hatchet and heal old wounds. As Marc's mood swings continue to worsen, the whole family is faced with hard choices, and the strain becomes even greater. He continues to perpetuate a sibling rivalry with a brother who no longer exists as Marc knew him in their childhood, and who is now his sister that has long since put the past behind her. As these two forces collide, the family is shaken to its very core, and Kimberly's unique perspective gives Prodigal Sons a riveting immediacy.

As such, this is nowhere near the film Kimberly set out to make. In fact it is quite a bit more. What she has captured is a shocking and moving family portrait, a bittersweet look at sibling rivalries and how they can affect a family years after the children have grown up. Marc is a man, through no fault of his own, perpetually stuck in the past, unable to accept his sister for who she is or to let go of who she was. Kimberly is the opposite, living only for the here and now and for the future, putting the past behind her as if it never existed. The challenge is meeting Marc somewhere in the middle, and that's where the real conflict of Prodigal Sons lies.

It makes for what is often a frustrating viewing experience, but a rewarding one. Reed's cameras seem ever present, capturing the family at its most vulnerable to the point that one almost feels as if they're intruding, that we are privy to something deeply private, that shouldn't be aired in public. But Reed has a lot to say here, not just about family relations but about LGBT issues and the continuing struggle for acceptance not in the political arena, but on the home front, in one's own backyard. The McKerrows may not be a conventional family, but they are a loving one, and Prodigal Sons' warts and all take on their personal travails make for something both painful, heart wrenching, and ultimately quite beautiful.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PRODIGAL SONS; Directed by Kimberly Reed; Featuring Kimberly Reed, Marc McKerrow, Todd McKerrow, Carol McKerrow, Oja Kodar; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 2.26, at the Cinema Village in NYC.

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