I hope you appreciate -- or will, after you see the film -- the restraint I displayed in my one-line teaser of this review. "The fraught reunion of two adult siblings propels Kimberly Reed's alternately heart-warming and harrowing documentary." Kimberly Reed's unpredictable and terrific first-person documentary, Prodigal Sons, has several sensational grabbers that beg to be trumpeted to prospective moviegoers. Gender switching! Mental illness! Hollywood superstar connections! Yet I resisted the overwhelming temptation to lure you in with cheap theatrics.
While eliciting an easy chuckle or ratcheting your blood pressure, I just illustrated the dilemma that Reed deftly dances with and around. Blending confession and reservation, she invites and insinuates us into her bizarrely atypical yet readily recognizable world, rotating continuously before our eyes from self-assurance to ambivalence to palpable discomfort. It requires exceptional footwork to be so intimate, revealing and vulnerable without exploiting one's self, or one's family. But she pulls it off, and we never feel like voyeuristic vultures or, conversely, that we've been excluded from crucial situations or events.
A male-to-female transsexual who made her transition during the decade she lived in San Francisco, Reed opens the film by announcing her intention to return to Helena, Montana, for her 20th high school reunion, and to reconnect with her problematic adopted older brother. We enlightened (and condescending) big-city types expect Kim's arrival to prompt an entertaining brouhaha among Big Sky rednecks who remember her as Paul, the movie-star-blond quarterback.
In fact, her old friends are a pretty cool bunch, and take Kim's appearance (in both senses of the word) smoothly in stride. It's hard not to grin through this whole sequence at the clear evidence, amid reactionary debates about "don't ask, don't tell" and all the other conservative and mainstream-media efforts to deny progressive impulses and initiatives, how far the country has evolved in the last three decades.
Unexpectedly, Kim's sexual orientation is overshadowed by brother Marc's old grudges and erratic behavior. A loose cannon throughout his youth, or so we gather, he suffered a brain injury in a car accident when he was 21 (although resulting complications didn't start surfacing for a few years). A couple of operations solved some problems and created others, and we increasingly feel trepidation whenever he's in the room (or the frame).
Prodigal Sons is a relentlessly involving film with barely a moment of downtime between shocks (and aftershocks). If one demands drama and revelation and confrontation from a documentary, this film delivers in spades. GLBT viewers will relate on a whole other level, reveling in a strong male-to-female character with a steadfast girlfriend and a supportive mother and younger gay brother. In most families, a transsexual child would be the odd duck, if not the black sheep. In this clan, Marc willfully and aggressively claims the title.
One doesn't walk out of Prodigal Sons more informed or better educated, or moved to take action or change a behavioral pattern. You may find yourself reminded, though, that it takes courage to acknowledge and accept one's self, and often entails an ongoing effort. Not just reminded, in fact, but inspired. And that's pretty sensational.
Prodigal Sons opens Friday, March 5, 2010 at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. Filmmaker Kimberly Reed will be on hand to answer questions after the 7 & 9:45pm shows at the Lumiere on Friday and Saturday; and after the 5:25pm show at the Shattuck on Sunday, followed by an informal get-together at the adjacent Lot 68 bar.