The recent wave of first-person, warts-and-all documentaries often come off as self-absorbed and exploitative, but when they’re as well-crafted and intense as Kimberly Reed’s Prodigal Sons, these “I have a story” docs render real life with the tension and thematic depth of great drama. Prodigal Sons starts out as the story of Reed’s journey home to Montana for the first time following gender-reassignment surgery. Reed intends to capture the reaction of her old friends, and to deal with her conflicted feelings about growing up as a woman trapped in the body of a high-school quarterback. But her story gets sidetracked—or maybe finds its real purpose—when Reed discovers that her estranged brother Marc is far more confused about who he is than she ever was.
Prodigal Sons comes packed with multiple hooks. Aside from the sex-change angle, the movie takes a turn when Marc—whom Reed’s parents adopted before she was born—learns that he’s the biological son of Rebecca Welles, and the grandchild of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. A big chunk of the middle of the movie is taken up by a trip overseas to meet with Orson Welles’ companion Oja Kodar, who dotes on Marc, and calls his disconnection from his true roots “a crime.” But the trip doesn’t make Marc any happier. No one in his new family wants to see his childhood photos, and Reed gets upset when Marc starts showing pictures from her high-school days. Marc—who suffered a brain injury in his early 20s—quickly transitions from being merely cranky to physically violent.
Some of the standard criticisms of intimate, personal documentaries can be levied at Prodigal Sons. Reed records some conversations that should’ve been kept private, and keeps rolling even when Marc takes a swing at her. Also, some of Reed’s narration—like “I feel like Mark would’ve given anything to have been the man I would’ve given anything not to be”—states the obvious. But Reed is to be commended too, for carving a clear, thoughtful narrative out of the tangled, sensational mess that is her life. By beginning at her reunion—where her classmates shrug off her new gender, saying, “All of us have changed”—and by dealing frankly with her own identity crisis, Reed underscores how hard life has been for Marc, who’d rather live in the past. And when she shows Marc trying on a too-small cowboy hat and muttering, “That’s the real me,” she does what filmmakers should do: She lets the images tell the story.