Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Returning the same, but different


Transgender filmmaker goes home again in 'Prodigal Sons'

Marc and Kimberly Reed with their mother.
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"Marc was held back in pre-school, so we went to school together. I had hoped this would give us a fresh start. It was on the day Dad died that Marc found out that I would be his sister." – Kimberly Reed narrating Prodigal Sons, her astonishingly intimate, brave, and at times uncomfortably close-up look at what happens when the gender wars break out inside a rugged ranch family in Big Sky Country.

Oprah Winfrey, from her set-up piece introducing the director of Prodigal Sons to the eight million viewers of her syndicated daytime talk show: "Today – All New! This is Paul at three years old, at nine, at his prom, and then Paul became Kimberly! 'When did you decide you were going to go all the way?' Cameras follow her back to her high school reunion: 'I'm a little bit nervous.' To the football field: 'My first kiss was on the bleachers inside the gym there.' Her former teammate: 'Is she the same person that he was?' 'And you didn't see it coming?' Hear what her mother has to say, next!"

I don't think I've ever been as conflicted about a major queer film that I deeply admire and yet am also profoundly disturbed by. Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons (opening Friday at Landmark's Lumiere Cinema and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, with selected appearances by the filmmaker) is a long-overdue, irresistibly entertaining, first-person memoir about the journey of a small-town high school quarterback who sets his sights not on college or pro ball, but on finally resolving a wrenching internal conflict and deciding to go for gender-reassignment surgery.

The portion of Prodigal Sons that covers the rocky but successful transition from Paul to Kimberly is handled with aplomb and a surefooted sense of story, voice and dramatic pacing that would be commendable in a veteran documentary-maker but that is seldom found in a first-time filmmaker. Reed has us in the palm of her hands as she drives back to Montana for a high school reunion that will mark the local debut of her female identity and San Francisco lesbian spouse to former teammates and cluster of long-ago ex- and would-be hetero girlfriends. This part of the film is an unqualified smash hit, and provides a bonanza of teachable moments that Oprah deftly harvests, climaxing in an on-air chat with Kimberly's mom, who couldn't be prouder.

So far, so good, but the film is called Prodigal Sons, and the other son, Marc, has a decidedly different fate in front of his sister/ex-brother's camera. Early in the film, while still behind the wheel, Reed explains the odd circumstances that gave her an older adopted brother.

"My brothers and I grew up in the 70s in Montana. My dad was a doctor, my mom was a schoolteacher. They adopted my older brother Marc because they thought they couldn't have children. The day they picked him up was probably the day they conceived me; a year later, along came another surprise, my younger brother Todd. It looks like a fairy-tale childhood, but appearances can be deceiving."

As Oprah astutely notes, Paul (now Kimberly) grew up as the "dreamy kind of guy whose name you might doodle on your notebook. He was the golden boy every guy wanted to be." And what guy would most want to be just like this star athlete and class valedictorian than a slightly older, noticeably less handsome, adopted brother?

It is precisely when the adult Marc – pudgy, bloated, battling mood swings from the after-effects of an auto accident when he was 21, a deeply troubled man, seething with rage that his meds barely keep in check – pops up at the reunion party that you realize that Reed has herself a perfect foil for an incendiary tale of sibling rivalry that falls short of Cain and Abel (thanks to the miracle of gender-reassignment surgery), but not by much. Throughout the balance of Prodigal Sons, through the unfolding of a series of astonishing real-life plots, subplots and cliff-hanger near-disasters, these twin souls resume their primal battle – reflected in a series of unusually vivid home movies – that is left harrowingly unresolved by film's end.

In the end, Prodigal Sons joins the other brilliant if punishing queer family autopsies, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation and Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, in making it brutally clear that nakedly honest personal filmmaking is a game that sissies like us can learn to play wickedly well. As I watched a human being completely unravel in a painfully real context – where, thankfully, for once, the queer characters prevail – I wondered what, if any, hidden agendas lay behind the relentless unfolding of this American tragedy.

By all means, support Kimberly Reed's brazenly honest film, let's make it a hit if we can, but at the same time, catch the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man and note how differently a savage story plays when it's couched in fictional tropes, with actors who aren't forced to leave an uncomfortable part of themselves up on the screen.

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