Filmmaker and DV Magazine editor Kimberly Reed’s new documentary, “Prodigal Sons,” is a haunting and powerful accounting of the search for personal and familial identity. For most, these things always have been a given. You are born, you grow up knowing who you are and where you came from, and your past makes some kind of sense, no matter how many curveballs life throws your way. For Reed, things have played out very differently.
“Prodigal Sons,” shot for the most part on handheld digital camera, is an intensely personal video diary spanning a little over a year of Reed’s life. She documents her return to her hometown of Helena, Montana for a high school reunion. But Reed is transgendered, and this is the first time that she will face many of her old friends as a woman instead of a man.
In addition, she is reuniting with her brother Marc, who suffered a severe head injury years ago that left him prone to intense and sometimes violent mood swings. When we first meet Marc at their mother’s house in Helena, it is obvious he is not quite right–his speech slow and his development stunted. Reed is unflinching in filming him, but she is never exploitive about it, often asking Marc if he minds the camera pointing at him. Underneath it all, a tension simmers ominously, erupting early on in the film into a staccato outburst of violence when Marc becomes suddenly frustrated and loses control. This is just the beginning, however, and events that happen later in the film lead to further flashes of emotional and physical ferocity, leaving the viewer emotionally shocked and breathless.
In addition to his injury, Marc, the eldest of the three children, is dealing with some other issues. He was adopted, and during the course of filming, he discovers, in a random twist, that his grandparents are Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Welles’ longtime partner, Oja Kodar, invites him to come to Croatia to meet her family. Reed comes along to document the trip, capturing moments both awkward and emotional as he struggles to find some common ground. This reunion is important to Marc, who is constantly frustrated by the effects of his injury and the irrational, simmering anger it causes. As tenuous as it may be, he finally feels like he has found an identity for himself. At the same time, he is unable to accept Reed’s new identity as a woman, one that she struggled with for years before making the decision to alter her sex.
And that is really the crux of this story. You can see it in Reed’s eyes as she attempts to explain her transformation to classmates who are tolerant but don’t quite understand. She is injured, emotionally and physically, every time Marc has an episode and brutalizes her with fists and words. And she is hurt every time Marc insists on reminding Reed and her family about her past as a man–a part of her past she feels she needs to completely put behind her in order to live her life.
“Prodigal Sons” is an intensely personal and harrowing documentary, one that will stick with the viewer long after the lights in the theater go up. Kimberly Reed has succeeded in telling a story that details the minutia of family interactions as well as universal life themes, allowing people from all walks of life to enter the intimate sphere she has bravely decided to make public.