Defining our identity is a lot trickier than we sometimes care to admit. After going through so much to determine who we are – through coming out, transitioning, or even starting a family – the time it takes to discover oneself can never be finite, nor can it be punctuated with any sense of assurance or finality. Identity is as connected to our past as it is to the events that are yet to befall us. It is guided by what we know and thwarted by what we do not know, and it is kept alive by those who occupy our lives.
Or that at least seems to be what Kimberly Reed is saying in her film Prodigal Sons, an autobiographical documentary that tells the story of Reed and her brother grappling with the other’s identity, and consequently being challenged to reflect on their own. It begins as a story about confronting the past and transforms organically into an unexpected new step forward in Reed’s coming-out process. It is a consistently enthralling, occasionally unnerving, unencumbered and wholly unique – if not perfectly structured – piece of storytelling.
Kim is an openly transgender filmmaker who returns to her hometown in Montana some time after having transitioned into a woman. She lived a relatively happy childhood growing up as “Paul,” despite knowing her body did not match who she was on the inside. This reunion marks the first time in years she is to see her older brother Marc, to whom she has been estranged for a decade. Marc leads a challenging life; he is adopted, he had less success in school than Kim, and suffered a debilitating car accident in his mid-twenties, resulting in debilitating mental and emotional issues beyond his control. Marc, whose current life is practically defined by its lack of identity, latches to the happier days of his past to endure. Needless to say this causes the primary rift between Marc and Kim, whose transition involved putting everything about her life as “Paul” behind her.
The shift Prodigal Sons makes from a family drama to a story of reclaiming identity is apparent roughly halfway through the movie, when Marc uncovers an astounding truth in his genealogy. I will not give away the big reveal, but it is an remarkable twist to those who know nothing about the movie going in. It is at once a giant step forward for Marc as some much-needed light is finally shed on his past. Ironically, however, the reveal happens far too late in Marc’s life for him to do very much about it. The limitations of his ability to respond in any way to these circumstances make life all the more frustrating for him. Marc’s capacity to control his emotions spirals downward, and his emotional outbursts begin to take a more extreme and violent turn.
From the filmic sincerity with which she expresses her identity to the humility she employs when uncovering her family’s inner demons, Reed’s work as a documentarian (this is her first feature film) is gentle and nuanced. It feels like Prodigal Sons was the story she had been born to tell, and she is surprisingly ambitious in the way she handles so many themes within a single text. In fact, her ambitions are rather overwhelming for a movie boasting a mere 86-minute running time. The parallels she constructs so successfully take a back seat once the film reaches its final act, and Reed seems less interested in delineating the way she and her brother reshape their identities than she is in extensively portraying Marc’s dramatic, violent meltdown. It is a sloppy, self-indulgent choice on the director’s part, and it risks shifting the focus of the story from an intricate narrative to something unfittingly tawdry.
Despite the messy denouement, Reed still succeeds in formulating a riveting documentary about family and identity; it is as intensely personal as last year’s French doc Beaches of Agnès and is upsetting in a way akin to 2004’s devastating Tarnation. Prodigal Sons may not come to any kind of neat and tidy finale for any of its characters, but its narrative feels appropriately conclusive. Even as the end credits roll and you ask what kind of a future this family has in store, you realize you do not really need to know the answer.