The title “Prodigal Sons” is tricky and loaded. In this documentary, the sons have complicated stories: One is adopted, and one is a woman.
Filmmaker Kimberly Reed was born Paul McKerrow, and has lived for many years away from her Montana hometown while she has been navigating the trip from male to female.
That story might have served as enough of a topic for a first-person documentary. But “Prodigal Sons” has more on its plate. Lots more.
Reed has a slightly older, adopted brother named Marc. While in his early 20s, Marc suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident, and his mood swings and capacity for violence are only partly controlled by medication.
Marc has been more or less estranged from Kimberly for a while — and that, again, might have been enough for a documentary.
As the movie begins, and Reed returns for her high school reunion (when she was Paul, she was the football team’s star quarterback), where she tries to re-connect with Marc.
But there’s more. In a story that brought national headlines at the time, Marc’s inquiry into the identity of his birth parents led him to a Tacoma woman named Rebecca Welles.
And Rebecca Welles, his birth mother, was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
For Marc, whose mental challenges frequently take the form of elaborate resentment about his lot in life, the news that he was the grandson of a cinematic genius and a Hollywood goddess comes as a strange chance at a new kind of identity.
In a visit to Croatia to visit Oja Kodar (the woman who shared Orson Welles’ life for many years), Marc seems to blossom.
It’s fascinating to watch Kodar’s reaction to this unknown connection to her former love — she touches Marc’s face, which strongly resembles his grandfather’s, as though summoning up Orson Welles himself.
As the movie shows, things don’t work into a neat happy ending; More trauma is to come.
All of this is quite arresting to watch, and film buffs with an interest in Welles and Hayworth will be especially intrigued.
Nevertheless, I have lingering unease about the movie. Laying oneself bare is one thing, but “Prodigal Sons” takes on an uncomfortably voyeuristic edge; the camera is running, even in the middle of physically violent confrontations. As fascinating as this family’s tensions are, I couldn’t quite shake the creepiness of that.