Review: Prodigal Sons

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Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****½

In 2005, Kimberly Reed documented her first trip back to her hometown of Helena, Montana after moving away 20 years prior. The impetus is a high school reunion, but Reed's nervousness about returning to her small town roots goes beyond the typical teenage angst laid on top of mid-life anxieties. During the long separation, in the years since Reed graduated high school, she transitioned from male to female and has actively avoided seeing anyone from her "Paul" years.

But her former classmates provide nary an ounce of coastal schadenfreude. While word has certainly gotten around that the former star high school quarterback is now a lipstick lesbian living in Manhattan, most of her former classmates find the transgender issue a fairly dull one. One woman laments, "None of us are who we thought we'd be when we were 18." Another cracks a joke about 'lady drivers' when discussing Paul's driving habits back in the day.

Reed has a far more difficult time with her older, adopted brother Mark. Similar to Donal Mosher's and Michael Palmieri's recent October Country, in Prodigal Sons we see an adopted son who, despite feeling his family's love, is unable to ever feel he's a part of the group. After receiving a traumatic brain injury in a car accident at age 21, Mark experiences bouts of memory lapses, extremely poor impulse control and uncontrollable rage. Unable to have a normal adult life, he retreats emotionally into his childhood. But it's evident Mark wasn't much happier then either.

The film shifts focus to Mark and the difficulties his family faces dealing with his rapidly deteriorating condition. There is a fleeting moment of hope when Mark is discovered by his birth mother and learns that his biological grandparents are Hollywood film legends Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. He is immediately flown to Croatia by Welles's long-time lover and has attention lavished upon him for his previously unknown genetic legacy. He's even invited to participate in a forthcoming documentary about Welles's long-lost works (badumching!) However, it quickly becomes apparent that this new information about his past (along with ever-changing combinations of medications and therapy) won't be enough to overcome a lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics and physical damage. Soon after the trip to (unbelievably gorgeous) Croatia, separate scenes capture Mark beating Kim, strangling his younger brother and threatening his mother with a knife on Christmas Eve.

Reed weaves these two narrative threads together, one sibling who is confident in his body but experiencing constant emotional and mental chaos; another, herself, at odds with biology but with the confidence (and medical procedures) to become self-actualized. Since Reed identifies so much with the commonality in these stories, she is that much more invested in creating environments for Mark to thrive, often at the expense of herself and those around them. Prodigal Sons gracefully explores the challenges and anguish of familial responsibility in situations that modern medicine is ill-equipped to manage.

DVD extras include a 12-minute Q&A with Reed and members of the Helena Congregational church, text updates from each family member and a 20-minute video montage of various festival Q&As with the Reed family members.

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