In her director’s notes, Kimberly Reed writes that her documentary Prodigal Sons began as an exploration of her adoptive older brother Marc’s search for his biological roots and especially its wild outcome. (Believe it: A grandpa Orson Welles and a grandma Rita Hayworth.) The progression of the production instead turned Kim toward assessing her damaged relationship with Marc and working toward reconciliation.
The elements defining the historical trouble between them are twofold: For one, Kim underwent gender reassignment during a prolonged estrangement from Marc, changing from Paul to Kim. (In fact, she’s said to be the first transgender feature-length filmmaker.) “It felt like Marc would have given anything to be the man I’d have given anything not to be,” she says. And second, on Marc’s side, is a traumatizing head injury received when he flipped his truck at age 21. Several surgeries and many years later, violent mood swings and short-term memory loss plague him. The Marc that Kim presents in Prodigal Sons is irrevocably stuck in a past centered on the adolescent rivalry between him and Kim, who had been a high-achieving quarterback and Valedictorian. Marc’s injury seems to have replaced a sense of self with a persistent wondering of what could have been.
Kim, too, wrestles with her identity, but in reverse. Since her transition, she has cast away her past as a man in an effort to play the part of the successfully “passing” transgender woman. To pass is the transgender “Holy Grail,” explains Kim. The siblings’ mutual alienation sees only the beginning of its tentative end within the film’s first few minutes, as Marc and Kim arrive in their hometown of Helena, Montana for a 20-year high school reunion.
The film’s thematics and action come in a stylistically pared-down, conventional mix of first-person voice over exposition delivered by Kim, home movies, family photo stills, and watchful camerawork that’s implicitly removed from the action yet always close to it. Certain moments of human warmth give the film its core strength. They occur for both protagonists, each instance illuminating some success the two achieve in their explorations of new identities.
For Kim, her moment is tied up in the reunion, in revisiting classmates who know her to be a woman they haven’t yet seen. We see her trepidation as she pulls up to a dusty parking lot filled with oversized trucks and a welcome sign plastered with Budweiser logos. “I can understand her being nervous, because it is Montana. Compared to New York, I’m sure we’re like hickville,” one classmate remarks. But Kim is met with kindness and openness. Watching her laugh, slap backs, rib and reminisce with her old friends is to see the organic beginnings of Kim allowing her past to coexist with her present, and it’s one of the film’s finest scenes. Marc’s moment comes through an invitation to travel to Croatia to participate in a documentary about Welles’ unseen work. In a vacation-like interlude, Marc slips into the limpid ocean, treading about and sharing sweet pats and hugs with Oja Kotar, grandfather Orson’s longtime companion. The simplicity of this small happiness exudes tenderness.
While the documentary’s core seeks to work through inextricable notions of identity and family, that Kim holds the production tools to illustrate this grapple complicates an already thorny story. Some scenes provoked by Marc’s temper tantrums expose emotion so raw it hurts. In the context of the straightforward doc template, these scenes are principally uncomfortable. Kim doesn’t dress up the action here with photographic flair or soundtrack flourishes. The stark, basic footage allows the moments to speak for themselves. But what they seem to show is more a man irreparably broken by a devastating series of events, rather than a permanently begrudging brother, which he may be. But viewing these troubles through Kim’s lens feels strange. The control Marc so severely lacks in his outbursts contrasts uncomfortably with the double-natured control Kim exudes on camera and wields behind it. While the film’s greatest success is in its well-paced, thoughtful narrative due to Kim’s holistic self-acceptance, the overexposure of her broken brother leaves one wincing, wondering why permission was given to see everything that we did.