Prodigal Sons explores relative disappointment

Kimberly Reed delivers a fascinating family portrait

If director Kimberly Reed fictionalized her family story as a stage play or an independent film, it would seem unlikely beyond belief. Instead, her documentary Prodigal Sons follows the remarkable twists in the relationship of two siblings to reveal the complexities of identity and life's abundant ability to throw curves at people.

Prodigal Sons begins with Kim returning from her life as a New York editor to her hometown of Helena, Mont., to attend a high school reunion. The tall, cheerful blond has changed a great deal since her days as her school's star quarterback, Paul McKerrow. Kim hasn't been back to Montana since she made the transition from male to female. At a keg party, her old classmates seem to take her new persona – and girlfriend – in stride.

Instead, tension arises from Kim's estranged, adopted brother Marc. Marc's a self-described high school party animal who suffered a brain injury at 21 after a car crash. Off his meds, Marc experiences violent mood swings, fits of hostility, and obsessions over childhood grievances. His situation severely complicates Kim's attempts to renew ties. Roughly a month after the reunion, Marc tracks down his birth family and discovers he's a blood relative of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

In Prodigal Sons, the subjects' personal misfortunes create engrossing drama. Kim's travels range from the winters of Montana to the sunny seaside of Croatia to visit some of Welles' family. Her camera also captures some of Marc's increasingly dark moments, including an upsetting Christmas Eve episode that includes homophobic rants and a police intervention. In quiet moments, Marc shows an innate ability to play piano, but his Jekyll-and-Hyde outbursts convey the toll mental illness can take on patients and their loved ones. It would be interesting to see more of Marc's wife and daughter's perspectives. They spend so little time on camera, though, one can only assume they were ambivalent about participating in the project.

Initially, Kim comes across as the kind of charismatic transgender person who makes switching genders look easy. Only gradually do we appreciate the anguish she went through. During a visit to San Francisco, where she arrived as a young man but left as a woman, she describes visiting some coffee shops as a male, others as a female. At times Kim seems overly sensitive and self-absorbed. She flies off the handle at Marc when he shares photos with his new Croatian kin of Kim back when she was Paul.

If Prodigal Sons indulges in too much soul-searching voice-over narration and suffers from a sudden ending, one can only shrug. The lives and foibles of real people seldom prove as thematically tidy as an Orson Welles film.