Sometimes things don't turn out the way you expect. Sometimes the high school quarterback grows up and transitions into a woman. Sometimes an orphan discovers that he's the grandson of movie stars. And sometimes a story of a high school reunion morphs into a touching tale of a family struggling to remain a family.
Kimberly Reed, a filmmaker from New York, grew up as Paul McKerrow in Helena, Montana, star of the football team and voted most likely to succeed. It would appear that this last part has come true, because Reed has succeeded with Prodigal Sons, a documentary both gripping and, like life, unexpected.
The initial concept of the film is that Reed has decided to return to Helena and attend her 20-year high school reunion. Now that she's a woman, will her classmates accept her? Will there be discrimination and rejection? Turns out that the reunion is a small part of the film and, frankly, the least dramatic. Even understanding that people's actions and reactions are immediately impacted the minute a camera is turned on them, Reed appears to experience little to no problems from her classmates.
Back in her childhood home, however, it's a different story. Graduating the same year as Reed, and also in attendance, is her adopted older brother, Marc. Where Reed was the brightest star, Marc is portrayed as a more rebellious teen. Yet as different as Reed is 20 years later, so is Marc, who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 21. Dealing with seizures, drugs that don't control the mood swings, and short-term memory loss, Marc is deeply rooted in the past. Always curious about his birth family, during the time that Reed is filming her attempts to reconcile her youth as a male, Marc learns that his biological mother was Rebecca Welles, the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
It's these storylines – Marc's failing health, his discovery of his biological family, and the relationship between the siblings – that carry the remainder of the film. If this weren't life, it might be too much to cram into a single 90-minute story. It's not what you expect and not always easy to watch, but it's worth it (to paraphrase a religious poster that Marc has hanging in his office).
Reed works hard – sometimes too hard – to incorporate themes into the narrative. She has spent years trying to leave behind her past and focus on her future as Kim, but Marc wants to remember the days before his injury when mood-controlling drugs and violent outbursts didn't control his life. This juxtaposition is the crux of why their relationship is so strained, but the manner in which it's inserted into the film's narrative is just jarring at times. The story tells itself; Reed's voiceover explaining the impact of each event takes away from her editing, which is aptly doing the job already.
To keep things visually engaging, Reed uses a variety of mediums to tell the family's story. Footage from the reunion and the year that follows is spliced with old, grainy footage from their childhood and clips from movies starring Welles and Hayworth. Some of the footage, like the reunion, is shot in the middle of a party and suffers from being jumpy and hard to hear. Yet it feels organic. On the flipside, the most volatile moments – as when the police are called on Christmas Eve to control Marc – seem contrived since the camera continues to roll in the middle of the crisis. It blurs the line between documentary and voyeurism and borders on the sensation that Reed is not just telling her story, but engaging in a form of exhibitionism in the process.
Yet Reed is most private when it comes to her personal life outside her family. Even as she states that she's dealing with the demons of her past, very little is actually said about her transition or her current relationship, though her partner is shown. However, those brief moments – as when Reed returns to San Franci sco and recounts the story of running into high school friends for the first time as a woman – are small insights into what she experienced, and Reed captures them with grace and a touch of humor.
In fact, it's these little moments that make Prodigal Sons so touching. For example, when Marc calls Reed by her birth-name and Reed's girlfriend gives her a reassuring rub on the shoulder, the camera catches Marc's face in an expression that could be disgust or confusion. It's not a moment that's lingered over, or narrated to fit in the story, but it says volumes about the individuals. These scenes counterbalance some of the others that don't have the same impact.
Prodigal Sons might not be the story that Reed intended to tell when she returned to her high school reunion, but sometimes life takes you in directions you never expected.