Last night I was able to make it out to Chicago's esteemed Gene Siskel Film Center for a showing of Steve James' latest documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, with James in attendance for introduction and following Q&A with the audience. The doc was quite good (as his always are -- I do crown him King of Documentary Filmmakers) and I've written a bit about it over here.
I had an open afternoon before the 5:00pm screening and noticed the Siskel was showing another Chicago premier, a special advanced screening by First Run Features of Kimberly Reed's soon to be released Prodigal Sons, a family documentary that deals with transgenderism, homosexuality, and mental illness all within members of one rural clan. It started at 3:15pm. The train would get me in at 2:00. Today I was in for a doc-double-feature.
I know there are some who would be immediately put off by my description of what the family deals with, but there's something at work in this story that I thought was quite affecting. It should speak to us all, regardless of how "normal" or unique our different family situations are. There's an unyielding search for peace in Prodigal Sons that I would hope can be an example of how any loving family unit should work.
Filmmaker Reed, formerly Paul McKerrow, could throw a heckuva spiral when he was quarterback for his high school football team (old family films show that he was quite an established athlete). Over the years, obvious by the name change, Paul has changed quite a bit and is returning to Helena, Monatana, as Kimberly for her high school reunion. She's a little tense as she realizes this is the first time her classmates will have the chance of seeing her in all her transformed fashion. The small-town classmates and her family in general are quite supportive. I was very impressed with this.
It's also a reunion with her family and specifically with one of her brothers, Marc, whom the story then turns its focus on. Marc, her adopted older brother, had a car accident a few years ago in which a portion of his brain was removed after surgery. He now takes a constant flow of meds to help him daily, but struggles continually with out of control behavior, which we're never quite sure can be as easily blamed on the accident as he claims.
Marc has an outburst toward the end of this visit which is quite disturbing, but everyone seems to get over it from there. Kimberly and her girlfriend fly back home -- the outburst aside, it really was a pretty good visit.
A few months go by and the story picks up again. There's a completely unexpected turn when Marc finds out who his real mom and dad are -- specifically his grandpa, who was Orson Welles -- yes, the Orson Welles -- whom he actually resembles once you compare them in a montage.
Marc and Kim and her girlfriend end up in Croatia with Oja Kodar, Orson's late love interest, and an entirely different film crew, who are making a separate documentary about Mr. Welles. Marc really seems to find himself with these people. He's finally very much at peace with the thing that has always bothered him -- who he is as an adopted child, who his real family is, his bloodline, his genetic ties -- and questions he's always had like where his piano playing ability comes from (which Oja explains came from a great-great relative who was a master on the piano).
His peace doesn't last very long once he gets back to the states. It's a little sad to see things decline. The family continues to reach out to him, we can see there's a desire inside him both to love and be loved. Still it's original resentment from years past, as far back as 1st grade, and probably in due part the missing pieces of his brain that hold him back from being affectionate. In fact, he explodes into rage in a moment's notice over the trvial matter of the van Kimberly is driving. He's an example of that old adage regarding nature and nurture. He's as confused by the environment of his adopted family as he is the new physical issues that overwhelm him. The only way to act is sometimes to simply let the lid off and lash out.
The thing that makes Prodigal Sons a unique experience is that we have a transgendered director who isn't shoving her issues down our throat, although her issues do remain as a constant subdued presence. She has instead turned her focus on loved ones, whom after years of separation she's trying to make good relations with. She's specifically interested in Marc, who has violent outbursts to the point of needing to be removed from the family over a Christmas holiday.
In terms of where the story took me, I thought a lot about that old Steve James documentary Stevie, one of the greatest documentary character studies I know of. Prodigal Sons has the same kind of heart, that it's at once fascinated by the psychology of its central character as well as wanting to be involved, wanting to intervene, and somehow help Marc find a way through his troubles. The films also carry a similar arc in that just as Stevie ended up tried for a crime, and had to navigate our wonderful justice system, Marc, while not tried for so severe a crime, nevertheless ends up on a similar path.
Reed is there to follow him through it just as Steve James was there in Stevie. In both stories there is a totally unexpected turn of events and the filmmaker continues to capture the ride. I do not believe that in either film the documentarian tried to take advantage of a harsh unfolding situation. There was concern and empathy behind the lens, even when we don't always understand what the next right move should be.
The only nitpicking I can do about Prodigal Sons is that I wonder whether Reed should have waited a few more years before releasing it. Stevie took Steve James over four years to capture, and even at that we still wonder whether Stevie had a moment of triumph upon his prison release. I wanted to know more about Marc and Kimberly, and their baby brother too -- where life is taking them next and whether a happy ending might be involved. I almost wish for a sequel ala the whole 7 Up series, which never resolves as much as it continues to keep resolving.
There's also the question of religion that Reed steers clear of in Prodigal Sons. I wanted to know more of what she believed. She was obviously raised in some form of a Bible believing home, and I hope -- I pray -- that Christianity hasn't harmed her with as much as she's already gone through.
During the harshest, ugliest scene, Marc is found screaming at his mom in the presence of all involved: "Do you believe in the Bible?" The underlying tone is that homosexuality and transgenderism are seen as sin. The problem is that in this approach Marc doesn't notice the balancing act his mom is trying to pull already. She loves everyone in the room, every child accordingly, and doesn't have a correct answer from the Bible. The problem, too, is that in this scene Marc, by his tone alone, has more sin than anyone else.
His question remains valid, I certainly won't single him out. The question might be better asked, "What will Jesus do for us now?" rather than a question and a quip with condescending and Pharisaical tones. I can't single out Marc here because it is a question I ask of myself. After years of pornography and masturbation, after drinking in excess and scaring my kids, after resentment and hatred toward a church that didn't know how to help, and after many times in general where I've been just plain fearful or ignorant, I need to ask myself that same question every day: "How can Jesus help us now?"
It's a question I won't stop asking myself. Should I point my finger anywhere other than myself I only pray it's pointing the way to something better.