DocuMondays – Prodigal Sons

Prodigal Sons (2008, dir. Kimberly Reed)

It is impossible to watch this film and not be affected in someway. It is one of the most inside looks at a family and their struggles, particularly with mental illness. I can’t say I have ever seen a documentary that captured such intensely intimate and violent moments on film. While the details of this particular family may seem drastically different from your own, when looking at the core nature of the relationships it is like any other: there is a lot of emotional pain and little done to resolve it for years. It’s one of those documentaries that is bound to ignite arguments about what is incited by the director and what is the natural progression of these people in this situation.

Kimberly used to be Paul, the high school quarterback and basketball center. After leaving Helena, Montana as a teen, she moved to San Francisco and embraced her life as a woman. Meanwhile, older adopted brother Marc was in a car accident that left him permanently brain damaged. Marc has trouble building new memories and for him Kim is Paul. In addition, youngest brother Todd he came out of the closet and moved away to California. The center of the film is the three brothers issues of identity as it relates to their relationships with each other. Marc is having trouble with medication that is used to balance him and lashes out repeatedly in violent ways that chill you to the bone. This is told through the filter of Kim, who is angry that Marc still thinks of her as Paul, and its unsure if this is a choice Paul is making or if he is physically incapable of permanently processing this.

The documentary is sold in its trailer as being about the discovery of Marc’s biological family. It turns out he was the son of Rebecca Welles, daughter of director Orson. Kim follows with her camera as Marc travels to Croatia and meets Welles’ lover Oda Kodar. Kim and Marc seem to bond over this trip and it appears that he has control over his temper. The next time they meet up though, Marc flips out about a broken gas gauge on a truck and physically assaults Kim, all of it recorded on camera. Things continue downhill at the family Christmas when Marc brutally tackles Todd from behind, police are called, and Marc grabs a knife. He ends up in a mental institution. Tragically, Marc died as the result of a seizure in May of 2010.

The film has to re-find its footing a few times as it starts out as being about Kim returning to Helena for the first time as a woman. It quickly becomes about she and Marc’s relationship, in particular his jealousy at never being the “good one”. Kim was the straight A student and star athlete. Marc was held back in preschool and drank and partied to excess. Now that Marc has suffered this injury he has faded from being able to impress, now he appears to use his disability to make every family get together about himself. But how much does Kim incite and how much is Marc manipulating? The film never completely answers this, but it will stay in your mind for a long time.

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