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Kimberly Reed with her long estranged brother, Marc McKerrow, in Reed's Prodigal Sons. | FIRST RUN FEATURES

Kimberly Reed with her long estranged brother, Marc McKerrow, in Reed's Prodigal Sons. | FIRST RUN FEATURES

Kimberly Reed, the transgender director of “Prodigal Sons” — a documentary about her family — started making movies when she was growing up as a boy in Helena, Montana.

As Paul McKerrow, he filmed his brothers playing parts in Super 8 home movies. Marc, who was adopted, loved being the center of attention and always had the lead. Reed’s brother Todd, who is gay, always played the female. Now that the children are adults, Reed films her family again.

This time, however, the story is very different –– and much more painful. Returning home after a long absence, the director hopes to reconcile with her brother Marc, whom she has been estranged from for many years. She is also coming to terms with her own identity, introducing her girlfriend Claire to her family, and reuniting with her high school friends, all of whom are meeting her as a woman for the first time.

Remarkable doc captures family’s joust with trans, gay, and mental health issues

What happens in “Prodigal Sons” is, as they say, stranger than fiction. Marc suffers from mental illness that resulted from a head injury he sustained as a young man. He has some frightening onscreen outbursts. What is more, Marc discovers that he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. At one point, Kimberly accompanies him on a trip to Croatia to meet Oja Kodar, Welles’ last lover. Although this resolves some identity issues for Marc, his illness soon gets the best of him. His subsequent fighting with Kimberly –– he literally pummels her in one horrific moment –– forces the family to deal with Marc’s demons.

Yes, much of the film is difficult to watch, but it is also riveting. In a telephone interview, Reed talked about making “Prodigal Sons” and “balancing” the storytelling by focusing on her relationship with Marc and their simultaneous struggles with identity.

“What I was trying to do with the structure of the film was to make a statement about being transgender through understatement –– letting that issue disappear,” she said.

At times, however, Reed reminds viewers of the burdens of her gender identity, as when Marc shows pictures of Kimberly as a boy to folks in Croatia, something that upsets her.

Marc is not always seen in a positive light, but Reed felt she had to be hardest on herself.

“It’s tricky when you work in the first person in any means of expression,” she explained. “The first job you have is to explain yourself and be as tough as you are. Otherwise, it’s a solipsistic journey that others can’t relate to.”

Her personal approach benefits the film immensely. An outsider would not be able to capture the family intimacy Reed does on camera, such as a tense moment when the police are called to prevent Marc from hurting himself and others at a holiday gathering.

“The increasing intimacy develops as the film moves along,” Reed said of its narrative arc. “I don’t think an outsider could ever have been privy to that.”

The filmmaker also defended her decision to show Marc and her family at extremely low moments. Significantly, she argued that “Prodigal Sons” does not exploit her siblings or their mother by presenting this difficult chapter in their lives.

“I have a really amazing, resilient family that is capable of tremendous love and support,” she said. “I knew if I kept the camera rolling, that would come out as much as the challenging times.”

Reed added, “What fueled me and my mom, who has become quite an activist, is giving” those with mental illness such as Marc “a voice.”

The juxtaposition of Marc and Kimberly’s stories illustrates the growth Reed went through filming her brother, even when their relationship hit problems.

“When I was making the film, he said, ‘The truth is the truth,’” she recalled. “And, to use a good, overly pretentious word, I was obfuscating. I really learned from Marc how to make peace with my past by admitting that the truth was the truth.”

“Prodigal Sons” takes viewers on an intense emotional journey, but a rewarding one nonetheless. Reed candidly described her film as “a really rich, dense family opera. I thought much more about epic literature and opera and big grandiose structures instead of simple forms.”

As the film played in festivals, Reed felt vindicated.

“What’s been heartening is just seeing people who appreciate those wide swings of emotion in an hour and a half,” she said. “That’s the world that I live in, where there are really exhilarating highs and rough lows that seem insurmountable.”

“Prodigal Sons” is a remarkable story of a family’s transformation, as well as evidence of how much Reed has developed as a person and a filmmaker. Filmmaker Kimberly Reed offers a sneak peak at the film when she appears at the Center Voices program, LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, February 23, 6 p.m. Admission is $10.

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Directed by Kimberly Reed

First Run Features

Opens Feb. 26

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