Monday, October 17, 2011

Hippy Daddy: Donor Unknown

JoEllen Marsh’s family does not yet have their own definition-expanding sitcom, but considering the attrition rate of the new fall season, there should be many open slots next year. In fact, she probably has enough half-siblings to make it a hit by themselves. Marsh was conceived through the use of “donated” sperm and Jeffrey Harrison, her hippy dad, was a busy donor. Harrison finally meets some of the children he begat but never fathered in Jerry Rothwell’s Donor Unknown (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

One of Marsh’s Pennsylvanian mothers can trace her ancestry back to the early days of the republic. On her father’s side, she only had a number, “Donor 150” at the California Cryobank. That was Harrison, a former stripper turned hippy beach bum. “Donor” is not exactly the right term. At the height of his “giving,” Harrison was getting up to fifty dollars a toss, so to speak, as often as four times per week. Yet, he was somehow rather shocked to discover he had quite a brood out there in the world.

Harrison’s anonymity was scrupulously protected by the Cryobank, but Marsh was still able to connect with a half-sister through a donor-sibling on-line search site. Slowly, more Donor 150 half-siblings turned up, but when Marsh shared her story for a New York Times piece, the floodgates opened. Harrison also chanced across the paper, learning of Marsh for the first time. Congratulations dude, you’re a father.

There is no getting around Harrison’s problematic nature, though Rothwell tries his hardest. When we are first introduced to him, Harrison is presented as a free-spirited animal lover, a St. Francis of Venice Beach. Slowly, we get a sense that this man is compulsively irresponsible and perhaps a bit self-delusional. However, at about the halfway point, Harrison launches into an unsettling rant of conspiracy theory paranoia. (One wonders if Rothwell was protecting him, keeping the really ugly stuff on the cutting room floor).

Frankly, there is way too much of Harrison in Unknown. The real story seems to be Marsh, who appears to be an intelligent and personable young woman, no thanks to him (or perhaps because of his absence). The way she forges real and meaningful ties of family and friendship with her donor-siblings is very cool, perhaps even inspirational. Whereas the long anticipated meeting with Harrison is mostly just anti-climatic.

With the very possibility relatively new, the evolution of donor-sibling relationships is fascinating to watch, accounting for the most rewarding sequences in Unknown. Not coincidentally, these are far stronger than the Donor 150 children’s budding “friendships” with their biological father. Indeed, in any film, hippies just are not that interesting. Recommended (but with some light fast-forwarding during Harrison’s scenes), Unknown hits airwaves this Thursday (10/20) as part of the current season of Independent Lens.