Prodigal Sons

Movie review: 'Prodigal Sons'

Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed at their high school reunion in "Prodigal Sons."
Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed at their high school reunion in "Prodigal Sons." (First Run Features)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

Kimberly Reed started out to make a movie about starting over, but then life got in the way. It didn't make her job harder. It made the movie better.

"Prodigal Sons" begins with footage of Reed's 20th high school reunion, where the transgender documentary filmmaker -- born Paul McKerrow, but now a lesbian called Kim -- first reveals her new identity to her former, and for the most part un-shocked, Montana classmates. So far, so good. It feels like an interesting but somewhat familiar twist on the classic American theme of reinvention. An initially less compelling side story concerns the director's attempt at reconciliation with an estranged brother, Marc, an adoptee with whom she hasn't spoken in 10 years.

Marc, we learn, suffers from wild personality changes, the result of brain damage caused by an automobile accident. There's also a little resentment on his part, given the fact that Kim, back when she was still Paul, was the school's handsome star quarterback, while Marc was, well, not. Now fat, balding and angry at life, Marc is something of a loser. Kimberly, on the other hand, is still blond, successful and gorgeous.

Do these narrative threads even belong in the same movie? The high school reunion plays like an inspirational memoir, while the sibling-rivalry drama comes across like reality television.

Along the way, something happens that fuses the two streams, showing that they are one and the same.

During filmmaking, Marc begins a search for his birth mother, discovering that he has rather more illustrious roots than anyone ever thought. I won't spoil the surprise, but you've almost certainly heard of his maternal grandparents, who were Hollywood icons of the 1940s. Rather than vindicating Marc's sense of self-worth, however, the revelation only strengthens the movie's emerging theme. Slowly, it becomes clear that the movie isn't about the elasticity of identity at all. Rather, it's about the tension between who we want to be and who fate will allow us to become.

There's a lot of talk in the movie about beginnings and endings. The filmmaker speaks about letting go of her former self, about leaving Paul behind and starting over as Kimberly, as though her life were a book, with chapters. She also wants to begin anew with Marc, to put the past 10 years behind her and to move on. Marc would merely love to get his meds straightened out and to go forward strengthened by his newly discovered birthright. His gift for piano playing despite never having had lessons, for instance, is chalked up to his talented ancestry.

But destiny has a way of screwing up the best-laid plans. Slowly, inexorably, Marc deteriorates, winding up temporarily confined to a psychiatric hospital after a frightening episode of violent and self-destructive behavior during family get-togethers.

That's bad news for Kimberly's family, but it makes for a powerful coda to her brave, unflinching film. The human capacity for self-invention may be strong, but it's not limitless, the movie shows. We may not be the same people we were in high school, but neither are we fully authors of our own biographies.

None of us ever really gets to start over. We only continue.

*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, scary mood swings and a brief outburst of violence. 87 minutes. On Friday, filmmaker Kimberly Reed will answer questions about her movie after the 7:30 and 10 p.m. screenings.

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