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Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed at their High School reunion in Montana, as seen in Prodigal Sons. Reed directed the film as well.

Prodigal Sons

  • Directed by Kimberly Reed
  • With Kimberly Reed and Marc McKerrow
  • Classification: NA

Kimberly Reed's debut documentary, Prodigal Sons, would make a terribly contrived novel, but is a compelling and sensational real-life story. As the film begins in 2005, Kimberly is a tall, attractive woman in her early 30s who edits a digital video magazine in New York. She graduated from her Montana high school in 1985 before attending university in San Francisco. She's returning for the 20th-anniversary reunion with more than the usual levels of apprehension.

Back in school, she was Paul McKerrow, the star quarterback, valedictorian and boy voted most likely to succeed. But that's not the story: The reaction of Kimberly's classmates to her change gets about five minutes of screen time. Over beer and reminiscences, a few old classmates ask a few curious questions about how Kimberly, formerly Paul, sorted herself out and accepted the answers.

"We become bald and fat and you became a girl," laughs one of Paul's old buddies.

The focus of attention soon becomes Kimberly's slightly older adopted sibling, Marc, yes, bald and fat, who has also gone through a different kind of transition since high school. On his 21st birthday, he rolled his car, resulting in a head injury. A few years later, he began to have seizures, apparently because of scarring from the initial trauma. Subsequent operations removed part of his brain, and though the seizures stopped, he is subject to violent mood swings. As well, Marc dwells obsessively on the past, which leads to the film's startling midpoint revelation. In searching for his birth mother, Marc discovers he's the grandson of the "boy genius" film director Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, born out of wedlock to their only child, Rebecca, who died shortly after Marc contacted her. The only time he saw his mother was in her coffin after her family had invited him to her funeral.

The journey keeps following new twists. Following the school reunion, Kimberly and Marc head to Croatia, at the invitation of Oja Kodar, Welles's companion for the last 20-odd years of his life. She dotes on Marc, and bequeaths him some of Welles's clothes which fit his similarly bulky frame. Marc shows off a shoebox full of family photos, including ones of Kimberly when she was Paul, which leaves her feeling angry with him.

Despite some ethical qualms involving scenes showing Marc's meltdowns, Prodigal Sons is a consistently generous film. Everyone in it struggles valiantly to do the right thing, from the gracious Kodar to a young policeman who is called after Marc turns violent at a Christmas dinner.

Thematically, the film attempts to find symmetry in Kimberly's and Marc's different kinds of identity struggles. Kimberly says: "I felt like Marc would have given anything to be the man I would have given anything not to be."

Ultimately, there's too much real life in Prodigal Sons to conform to a tidy parable. The film's initial commercial hooks - a first-person tale of gender reassignment and the story of an adopted child related to a genius - feel insignificant matters compared with the ordinary, devastating business of mental illness in the family.

Prodigal Sons runs at the Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., in Toronto March 12-16 and March 18 (416-516-2330).

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