Film Review: Prodigal Sons

Compelling documentary featuring a remarkably appealing transsexual high-school star quarterback and her adopted, brain-damaged brother who learns he’s the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Yes, there’s all the noise—thanks to many festival awards and media attention—about this documentary and its subject who learns he’s the grandson of Hollywood royalty. But filmmaker Kimberly Reed—evolving from high-school jock to lovely, appealing female—also emerges a star.

Prodigal Sons is a unique journey into deepest Montana and deep family secrets as Reed (née McKerrow) leads this adventure/investigation into the story of her sibling—adopted brother Marc McKerrow especially and, more as a pro-forma gesture, biological younger brother Todd McKerrow (an architect living in San Diego).

Geographically, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Prodigal Sons begins in Helena, Montana, where the McKerrow siblings—the children of farming parents Carol and her late husband—grew up and where filmmaker Reed really begins her story as she and Marc attend their Helena High School reunion for the class of 1985.

What grips is that thematically this multi-award-winning doc is galaxies removed from metaphorical, all-American Kansas. Reed is a transsexual lesbian who, before years at Berkeley and going through sex-change operations in San Francisco, was Helena High’s guy class president, valedictorian and star football quarterback. Brother Marc, from whom  Kim is estranged and with whom she hopes to reconcile, is an abusive loose cannon as a result of a brain injury to the frontal lobe. The handicap has given him a challenging lower-middle-class life but allowed him a seemingly sturdy marriage with supportive wife Debbie.

Brain damage and emotional outbursts aside, Marc is also stricken by a need to learn about his biological parents. While similar searches have been the stuff of many a doc, Reed jump-cuts to the end result of Marc’s investigation. It’s a doozie.

Prodigal Sons delivers the wallop that Marc is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. In both facial features and body amplitude, he resembles Welles. And the explanation for his natural gift at the piano—an inclination not borne of any instruction—suggests he might also have inherited some of Welles’ remarkable creative genes.
Happily, longtime Welles companion Oja Kodar invites Kim and Marc to her home in Split, Croatia, where Marc is treated like one of the family (which he is!). Kim captures it all.

While the revelation of seizure-prone Marc’s lineage is delicious, it is Kim who shines. She is so comfortable in her skin and appealing as a female, she’s a walking advertisement for sex change. (In her life as jock Paul at Helena High, she says she was always “uncomfortable” in her skin as a guy.) As a woman, Kim is so natural, charming and smart she almost suggests enough appeal and savvy to fill the broadcast-TV slot Oprah will vacate. In her ongoing partnership with Claire Jones, she is also excelling as a significant other.

Prodigal Sons
(a curious title as none of the siblings is reckless or a lavish spender) is further enhanced by a number of clips of Welles. The considerable footage of the Helena High reunion gives hope that tolerance can abide anywhere and the McKerrow home movies suggest that destiny is not just biology.