Friday, February 26, 2010

The Brothers McKerrow: Prodigal Sons

The educated classes look down at reality television programming as emotionally voyeuristic and sensationalistic tabloid TV. Yet, if you film candid footage of average people, cut it into feature length and screen it in art houses, it is called a documentary and considered serious cinema. Sometimes though, it is hard to tell the difference between the genres. While Prodigal Sons (trailer here), director Kimberly Reed’s documentary examination of her difficult family relationships often feels uncomfortably intrusive, it also has the unlikeliest connection to one of the towering figures of American cinema. After well received screenings at film festivals across the country, including New York’s Newfest, Prodigal opens theatrically in the City today.

Reed was born Paul McKerrow and had long overshadowed her older adopted brother Marc as the star jock of their small town Montana high school. She then made some pretty dramatic changes to her life, which her brother had a particularly hard time accepting. Changing her name to Reed, she moved to New York starting a completely new life. As Prodigal opens, Reed is finally returning to Montana for a high school with her partner Claire Jones and much trepidation about the reception she will find.

Refreshingly, Prodigal does not degenerate into a predictable red state/blue state culture clash. Based on what the film presents, it seems Reed was readily accepted by her former classmates. As the subject of rumors for years, Reed naturally fields a number of questions, but she seems to take them in the spirit of genuine friendship. Indeed, some of the happiest moments of the film occur during the reunion activities. Unfortunately, things are not so easy with her older brother.

For years, Marc McKerrow has suffered from some sort of physiologically induced mental disorder that has never been properly diagnosed. He also has more workaday emotional issues stemming from his adoption. Already feeling rootless and unwanted, Paul’s decision to become Kimberly had profoundly confused the formerly jealous McKerrow brother, leading him to act up and even lash out. Then from out of nowhere comes the revelation of his birth mother’s identity: the daughter of legendary actor-director Orson Welles and glamour goddess Rita Hayworth.

While the transgender aspect of Prodigal is inescapable, it is issues of mental health rather than gender that truly drive the film. Reed might very well experience some ugliness based solely on who she is, but from what the audience sees in the film, her brother’s condition appears to be the single greatest cross she now has to bear.

Sensitive viewers should be warned, there are moments of domestic violence in the film that are frankly harrowing. At times tough to watch, Prodigal is viscerally honest—reality, indeed. Some viewers will probably wonder why they are watching such untitillating reality fare, but at least Prodigal is responsible and achingly earnest in its depiction of very serious mental health concerns. It opens today (2/26) at the Cinema Village.