Prodigal Sons

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 14, 2010

Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed sort out sibling rivalry and other family issues in ’Prodigal Sons’
Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed sort out sibling rivalry and other family issues in ’Prodigal Sons’  (Source:Big Sky Film Productions)

The tag line for the documentary Prodigal Sons compresses the film's complicated theme rather nicely in just a few words: "A brotherly rivalry between a man and a woman... and Orson Welles," it reads, a masterpiece of summary and evocation.

It takes about a third of the film's running time to unfold the story of director/narrator Kimberly Reed and her brother Marc McKerrow. Once we understand who these people are and where they are coming from, the movie moves forward with a genuinely intense, sometimes upsetting, progression as the two try to connect and stay connected.

Kimberly was Paul McKerrow before her transition from male to female. At the film's beginning, she's on her way to a high school reunion in Helena, Montana, where she was once the co-captain of the football team and something of a local hero.

That athletic past isn't easy to move beyond for Kim, nor for Marc; as Kim reckons at one point, the "ghost" of Paul "haunts" the two of them, with long-standing issues of identity and competition surfacing again and again.

Kim's high school friends accept her without reservation; one old chum jokes that while the rest of the guys got "old, fat, and bald," Kim, by contrast, "turned into a girl." The only point anyone seems to be puzzled by is the fact that Kim has a girlfriend; it's a hard job to try to explain that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, at least for Kim, but Kim's girlfriend boils it all down rather nicely, and it's plain that the two women share a special bond rooted in deep understanding.

But that deep resonance is somehow missing--or, perhaps more accurately, distorted--when it comes to Marc, and the documentary soon turns from issues of hometown acceptance to the painful issues that come between the siblings.

Marc is the older of the two, the child adopted by parents who thought they would never have biological offspring. As it happened, however, Paul came along shortly after Marc's adoption; the two ended up in the same grade in school, and the combination of being adopted and in the same classes as the over-achieving Paul had an impact on Marc.

At age 21, Marc suffered an accident that led to brain surgery and the removal of brain tissue. He suffers from mood swings and outbursts that grow worse through the course of the film, until at a holiday gathering Marc assaults youngest brother Todd and then, when the police show up, grabs a knife in the kitchen.

This is a documentary, of course, and not a scripted Hollywood drama, but in the middle of the movie a wildly improbable twist takes place that reveals Marc to be the biological descendant of Hollywood royalty: his mother was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

For a time, this revelation seems to offer Marc a new sense of connection and family identity--until it becomes obvious that the old anxieties are still driving him on, with results that upset Kim. Marc brings a box of family photos to show off to Welles' longtime female life partner, Oja Kodar, in Croatia, including photos of Paul: an identity Kim would rather forget ever having had.

Both Marc and Kim struggle with identity and family issues, but it's Kim who begins to find a sense of peace and order in her journey. Marc's story is not resolved; it can't be, at least not in this documentary. For all that their shared path leads to different destinations, however, Kim and Marc clearly share a bond that neither quite understands or knows what to do with. Their love, and discomfort, makes this film quite an uncomfortable viewing experience, at time, but "Prodigal Sons" is never less than compelling.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.