Movies We Like
Prodigal Sons tells the too-strange-to-be-fiction story of a family from Montana with some really fascinating problems. Daughter Kimberly used to be a man named Paul who was the star quarterback of his high school football team. Paul was popular and dated girls but he never felt comfortable in his skin. He moved away to San Francisco and, in the process of figuring out his gender identity, he decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Paul became Kimberly and decades beyond her former life she is, in many ways, a completely different person.
Now living in New York, working in media, and in a long-term lesbian relationship Kimberly decides to go back to Montana for her high school reunion. She makes a documentary about her trip and the reaction of her former schoolmates to her new identity. She will also reunite with her estranged brother, Marc, who was in the same graduating class. Marc has an interesting story in his own right, though the fascinating details don’t emerge until midway through the film. Marc is Kimberly’s adopted brother and though he is essentially a good person he is also a very troubled man with a violent temper and Kimberly is nervous about what it will be like to see him.
The conceit behind Kimberly’s documentary project is at least partially motivated by how uncomfortable she is with what she may be walking into. Filming it is a way for her to keep these people at arm’s length (quite literally since she’s holding a camera most of the time). There is a lot of discussion in the film about the particular emotions common to transgendered people and about how to reconcile their former lives with their current ones. Kimberly recognizes the situation as potentially perilous and the filming is a way to protect herself.
What ultimately transpires is beyond anything she could have ever predicted and indeed a subplot involving Marc may officially deserve the honor of being the biggest left-curve plot twist of all time. Kimberly’s high school reunion ends up being the least exciting part of this film. All of her friends who knew her as Paul are totally cool with her new identity and make her feel welcome. It’s pretty neat to see the denizens of a small town red state community be so comfortable with their transgendered classmate.
Marc, though, decides to find out who his birth mother is and it’s here where the story gets really interesting. Marc discovers that he is the only son of Rebecca Welles, who was herself the only child of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Marc, a man with the one discernable talent of being able to play something on piano by hearing it once, is actually the only grandson of one of the most famous couples in Hollywood history. We see a news clip of Marc being interviewed about it by a local reporter. Soon Orson Welles’s former partner, Oja Kodar, is inviting Kimberly and Marc to visit her in Croatia.
Plot detours like this one are worth savoring, not only because it’s such a delicious detour but also because it ends up illuminating the central theme of Kimberly’s film: that identity and family relationships are transitive and unstable properties that reveal themselves over long periods of time. There's a lot of sadness in this film but also some amazingly beautiful moments that capture the essential vulnerability of all of these characters.