The strangest sibling rivalry you’ll ever see, between a transwoman and her brain-damaged brother. Day Four of LGBT Week.
Dir. Kimberly Reed, 2010, 86 min
Sibling dynamics are complicated enough as they usually are, so you can imagine how much more twisty they get when you add sexual reassignment and brain damage into the mix. And yet even then the interplay between brother/sister and brother is oddly, even comfortingly familiar. That’s the center of Prodigal Sons, a movie that finds a universal heart of what it means to be a sibling in a rather one-of-a-kind situation.
Kimberly Reed, the director and protagonist, was born Paul McKerrow. She had an older brother Marc, who was adopted as her parents initially believed they would be unable to have children. Growing up in rural Montana (or is “rural Montana” a redundant phrase?), Paul always felt that there was something “off” about his body. In college, he determined that his true identity was as a “she,” and later underwent a sex change. Around the same time, Marc was in a car accident that left him mentally hobbled. This pair of huge alterations fractured the siblings’ relationship. Now, as Kimberly returns to town for her high school reunion with a girlfriend and camera in tow, she attempts to make amends with Marc. Along the way there are many, many fights and a huge revelation about Marc’s true parentage (I won’t spoil it, even though the poster basically does).
The story is a push-and-pull conflict between opposing desires over the past. Kimberly, for obvious reasons, wants to leave her history behind. She’s shamed by years of living a lie, and every picture of herself as a himself in Marc’s old photo albums chafes her. Marc, on the opposite end, can’t let go of anything that has happened. Because of both his religious beliefs and his impairments, he can’t wrap his head around what his “brother” has done to “himself.” The movie hinges on the question of whether either sibling can meet the other halfway.
Sandwiched with the familial drama is a lot of information about what it’s like to live in a body that doesn’t feel like the right one for you, and the process of changing yourself so that the outside matches the inside. It’s a captivating thread if you were at all curious about what it’s like for transgender people. What’s also interesting is how Kimberly’s physical transformation is somewhat mirrored by Marc’s mental transformation. There’s the very sad suggestion that reconciliation is impossible because neither of them are the people who were originally friends.
That grim idea seems increasingly apparent as the film goes on. While the reunion goes smoothly at first, each subsequent confrontation between Kimberly and Marc is uglier than the last. It culminates in truly upsetting outbursts and threats of physical violence from Marc. But Kimberly persists, far more than most of the rest of us would. Is it because, due to her sexual orientation and identity, she feels a greater need for validation from the people she loves most? Perhaps, but it also demonstrates that she hasn’t quite let go of the past as much as she thinks she has.
Despite the Biblical reference in its title, Prodigal Sons is not a story about coming home to unconditional forgiveness and acceptance. That’s the fantasy, and to some extent it’s what Kimberly hoped for in returning to Montana. The way that reality shatters that dream makes this movie a small masterstroke of tragedy. Even if we don’t feel the urge to change our sex, there are always parts of us that we try to reconfigure after leaving home. But home will never forget what we were before. Sometimes, never forgetting means never forgiving.