So states Marc McKerrow, emphatically, unequivocally, to his brother, filmmaker Kimberly Reed, towards the end of her intimate family-portrait film, Prodigal Sons.
Did I just mess up my pronouns? No.
For this is a story of two brothers still working out the psychic traumas each has experienced individually, and have also unwittingly inflicted upon one another throughout their childhoods, adolescences, and on into adulthood. These traumas persist, in part, because Kim transitioned from male to female as a young adult and still hasn't really dealt with the abandoned identity she's left behind; and, in part, because Marc has sustained a severe head injury and concomitant mental illness due to a car crash he was in as a young adult that resulted in having part of his brain removed.
But the story goes back long before these seminal events in each of their lives occurred, and Reed, in this deeply moving investigation of her family legacy, intrepidly sets out to uncover and reveal, layer by layer, the dark heart of sibling rivalry. The film received an emotional standing ovation for several minutes at the morning screening I attended at True/False, so it speaks in a mighty profound way, obviously, to all the ways in which every single one of us "covers up" from those closest to us and, especially, from ourselves.
Let's get the short synopsis out of the way so we can get to the essence of what this film means to say, because the story's a doozy and would have any novelist or screenwriter drooling with envy: "Prodigal Sons follows three siblings — a trans-gender woman [Reed], a gay man [little brother, Todd], and their adopted brother [Marc] who also discovers he’s the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth (!) — back to their Montana hometown, where a powerful story of an entire family’s transformation unfolds." (Marc's grandma and grandpa, pictured above, starring together in The Lady from Shanghai, 1947.) Only from the bosom of Middle America. . .
This film mirrors Reed's uncertainty when she realizes that her own story of transition will have to be an essential ingredient in the story she wants to tell about Marc's legacy. Because of Marc's unresolved issues, Kim cannot help but be pulled into the vortex of his anger and resentment which has much to do with her. (The recurring image she uses of herself as a young high school athlete on the basketball court covering his face when he notices the camera on him is resonant and deeply affecting, speaking to her own experience of discomfort and dissonance throughout her life, even though to the outside world, she was a superstar in every way.)
Because of Marc's seizures and constant struggle to stay on his meds, his rage erupts so explosively that the family soon comes to realize that intervention is the only solution to make sure that something irreversibly tragic doesn't occur. Reed captures a man both transformed through music (the mystery of his prodigious musical talent is solved during the course of the film, for he doesn't read a note of music but has always been able to play the piano beautifully), and a man so filled with rage, his tantrums are truly frightening, as he threatens physical harm on Kim and on himself. His self-hatred is so virulent and deadly that in one episode at a family Christmas dinner, things tip over the edge for everyone as they all realize that if they don't do something to help him, he will end his own life, possibly taking someone with him.
Several members of the audience praised Reed for her bravery in wading into the deep and painful terrain of this Cain and Abel story but she gives most of the kudos to their mother, a quiet but steely widow who handles her children with plenty of acceptance and love but with hard and fast boundaries about what she expects them to outgrow at this juncture, all but demanding that old, useless rivalries be left behind for good. For she knows that what needs to be dealt with is Marc's illness; she wants so much to help him find himself at last, for that is the only way the rest of them can find peace individually, and as a family.
I love the way the film floats back and forth between the nostalgic, innocent world of childhood, the way we remember ourselves in home movies, everyone looking happy and acting goofy, and the raw footage of capturing the emotionally painful and violent moments of dealing with an adult child's rage and illness that will bring everything he holds dear down with him. The final shot of Marc staring out into the middle distance, deep in thought, makes us hopeful that he can finally find solace within himself and within the family who loves him, a family that stubbornly pushes away their own fears and confusion to stay by him. Interestingly, Reed gives Marc top billing with a music credit, followed by her own name. A name she is thinking about changing back to McKerrow.
Still without any traditional distribution deal, there are so many different audiences that this film can speak to outside of festival ones. (Prodigal Sons will next appear at the 11th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece this month). Like most independent filmmakers, Reed is now strategizing on how to reach those various audiences with a film that shows a family in the throes of leaving behind all the coerced conformity they've lived with all their lives. It's a beauty of a film.