Opens Fri., March 12
It’s not every documentary that can claim a male-to-female post-op attending her 20-year high school reunion—in Big Sky Country, no less—as one of its least interesting elements. But believe it or not, there are infinitely bigger surprises in the rickety Prodigal Sons, which tries—and almost succeeds—in holding attention by the sheer amount of craziness that transpires.
Director Kimberly Reed was born Paul McKerrow, quarterback, voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and touted, in big letters, by her yearbook as “the Real Man.” Camera in tow, Reed heads back home to reunite with old friends—as well as tubby, heavily medicated adopted brother Marc, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade. He seems kind and the reunion seems to be as unexpectedly scrape-free as the one with her old classmates. But due to a head injury, Marc’s also prone to violent outbursts, his understanding of the life decisions made by Reed and their other brother (who is gay) suddenly segueing into angry proseletyzing and knife-seizing.
Marc also discovers he’s the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
How do these disparate, oft-lurid strands come together? Reed’s film is kind of like Frankenstein: part diaristic journey, part family home movie exploitation, with a wild-card element (Old Hollywood!) thrown in. Reed’s relentless narration, always the least interesting thing in the film, is the only glue that holds the film together.
Reed seems to have entered each of the film’s sequences with an open-mind, not sure where it will take her. After the relative nonevent of the reunion, she joins Marc as he heads to Croatia to meet Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kador and briefly participate in the concurrently-filmed doc Searching for Orson. When Marc’s condition takes a sudden nosedive, she dedicates the rest of the film to queasy footage of sneakily-filmed tussles, with her ill brother’s tantrums only stopped by a visit from the police.
But this open-mindedness is also Prodigal Son’s limitation. Reed introduces elements, like her trying to “make peace with [her] past,” only to abandon it to focus wholly on Marc’s travails. And after dedicating a stretch to the Welles-
Hayworth angle, that too is dropped, as though Reed wasn’t sure how it reverberated with the other strands except as an interesting—admittedly, really interesting—footnote. Unforced but unfocused, Prodigal Sons cries for a third-party intervention, someone who can pound this material into something resembling a shape.
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