PRODIGAL SONS and superlative filmmaking

Kimberly Reed’s documentary PRODIGAL SONS expanded to a few cities over the weekend, one of which is my Athens-Ohio-Main-Street-USA theatre, the Athena. The winner of a number of recent festival awards (two with “bravery” in the titles), the film is a jaw-dropper, the kind of “you can’t write this!” content that only, and I mean only, exists in life. Stranger than fiction, indeed, and more tragic, more superlative: More more more.

Reed sets out to make a film about her adopted brother, a volatile 40-something man suffering from seizures and uncontrollable anger, the residuals from a serious head injury twenty years prior. Reed herself has a dramatic past – she spent her childhood and adolescence as Paul, the Helena, Montana High School quarterback jock struggling to come to terms with his desire to be a girl. Indeed, Paul eventually became Kim (and a looker at that), and the doc opens with a trip home to Helena for her 20-year high school reunion, where brother Marc (estranged for ten years) will also be in attendance. The story shifts quickly from the drama of the reunion to the drama unfolding in the family, namely, the buried rivalry between Marc and Kim that resurfaces very, very quickly.

The plot twists just keep on coming. Marc discovers he’s the grandson of Orson Welles! Then he starts to go completely off the deep end. It’s heart breaking to watch – and terrifyingly immediate as we experience the most dire of familial scenarios unfold before our very eyes. (Imagine yourself standing in the middle of the worst possible family situation that you can conjure – now imagine that you are recording everything. For doc aficionados – it gets way, way  worse than the divorcing-on-camera Louds of AN AMERICAN FAMILY.)

The content is so unusual that it was difficult for me to contextualize – I  simply have never seen anything like it. That’s the strength. The weakness? Well, let’s just say that in our over-saturated, tell-all reality-tabloid world, the film could have benefited greatly from more discovery, less confessional narrativizing. The moment we discover Kim was formerly Paul is a great example – it unfolds in organic interaction, but is then immediately scored and voice-overed. Simply allowing me to observe these incredible developments inside of an ultimately noble, loving family of survivors … would have been far more satisfying. Still, go see it if you can – and here’s the trailer: