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Short Takes: Prodigal Sons review

By Nicolas Rapold

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A family's dirty laundry gets aired in this overloaded doc

The success of many documentaries at marketing uncomfortable voyeurism does not make the airing of family dysfunction any less of a risky proposition. Kimberly Reed’s feature-length debut deserves attention for her plainspoken reflections on life as a transgendered person and for the bizarre revelation that her adopted brother Marc is the grandson of Orson Welles. But when the tensions and conflicts caused by Marc’s mental illness become the doc’s driving force, Reed finds herself with more material on her hands than one film—or at least this film—can handle responsibly.

Reed begins with her journey back home to Montana for a high-school reunion, where classmates see her for the first time since she was the football team’s champion quarterback. In a voiceover that anchors the film, she speaks movingly of the challenge of feeling secure in one’s skin. Masculinity emerges as the persistent source of trouble, especially with regard to her brother. Marc is a tragic sight: evoking Welles in his rotundity (and drawing tears from Orson companion Oja Kodar during a visit to Croatia), he’s hampered by a brain injury and complains like that guy from your hometown who hassles anyone who left.

His violent resentment of Reed and suicidal feelings produce painful scenes of abuse and depression. While Reed’s own self-exposure shows insight, her presentation of her brother’s suffering comes across as an unprocessed spectacle of misery that hasn’t been adequately thought out. The shortfall makes the doc feel overloaded to a dangerous and troubling degree.

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