FILM Some of the best documentaries in recent years have been hijacked by their subject — or even by another subject the filmmaker wasn’t planning on. Prodigal Sons was supposed to be Kimberly Reed’s story about a high-school quarterback, basketball captain, class president, and valedictorian born to a family of Montana farmers, returning for a reunion 20 years later — albeit as a fully transitioned male-to-female transgender person attending with her female lover. This will definitely be news to most of Helena, Mont., especially those former classmates who once swooned with puppy love or envy over the jock prince who is no more.
That would have made for an interesting movie. What makes Sons a fascinating one is that Reed finds the camera focus — as director/producer/coeditor, her own camera — stolen almost right away by a crisis in progress. Its name is Marc, adopted “problem child” of the McKerrow family (Kimberly changed her surname post-op). It’s not so much that Marc grabs the spotlight out of a jealous need for attention, though that may be a factor. It’s that he’s still trapped in a sibling relationship that for her ceased to exist — at least in its original form — decades ago, and Kimberly’s presence stirs up all kinds of buried shit.
Marc’s living in the past isn’t mere self-pity or indulgence. Already stamped as a bit of a fuckup (held back in grade school, a high school dropout), he suffered a head injury at 21. That commenced an ordeal of seizures, brain surgeries, and complicated med cocktails. He’s married with a daughter, but emits toxic clouds of social awkwardness and discontent that sometimes erupt in violent mood swings, which here result in at least one police intervention.
“It’s not the real me” is his usual refrain afterward each such “episode.” While Kimberly looks to reconcile her successful new identity with a community she’d ago severed most ties to, Marc struggles to assert any cogent post-accident identity at all.
Running a gamut from harrowing to miraculous (not necessarily in that order), the remarkable Prodigal Sons grows stranger than fiction when abandoned-at-birth Marc discovers something jaw-dropping about his ancestry. Suffice it to say, this results in a trip to Croatia and biological link to some of Hollywood’s starriest legends.
If Kimberly’s story is about repression forcing a mentally healthy transformation, Marc wrests us away from that inspirational self-portrait. He renders Sons a challenging, head-on glimpse of mental illness with no easy answers in sight. Christianity, a well-adjusted gay third brother, conservative yet surprisingly adaptable parents, jail time, savant piano mastery, and other elements also factor into this wild ride of a documentary. Its narrative progress might be dismissed as over-the-top if it didn’t happen to be true.
PRODIGAL SONS opens Fri/5.