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MOVIE REVIEW

Prodigal Sons

Here, dysfunction is putting it mildly

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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The problem with family-diary documentaries is that some families have too much drama for just one movie. In “Prodigal Sons,’’ N.Y.-based filmmaker Kimberly Reed tries to go home again and figure out who has changed more: her or them. The answer, in all its messy, heartbreaking complexity, is both. And then some.

The first jolt comes five minutes in, when Kimberly casually reveals that she used to be Paul, the middle brother of a rock-ribbed, all-American Montana clan. Armed with a video camera and her girlfriend, Claire, she’s going to her high school reunion to see if her classmates can deal with their former football quarterback in a woman’s body.

If you have red-state/blue-state blinders on, you may be surprised by her friends’ and family’s ready acceptance; yes, a few nosy questions get asked as the reunion kegs pile up, but everyone’s just glad to see him, or her, or whoever. Old home movies and high-school football films testify to the strenuously athletic Paul even as Kimberly’s voiceover narration reminds us how profoundly out of synch she felt in that body.

That’s only the first chapter of “Prodigal Sons,’’ though. Also attending the reunion is Marc, Kimberly’s adopted brother and her elder by 11 months. He’s an off-putting character at first, a former party boy who never fully recovered from a car accident when he was 21. After subsequent seizures, Marc had part of his brain removed, and he seems like a visitor in his own skin, shifting between awkward gentleness and inexplicable rages.

He’s also a naturally gifted, self-taught pianist who wonders whether talent runs in his genes. Curiosity about his birth parents leads Marc to the movie’s second big lollapalooza, which I won’t spoil other than to say that his genes turn out to be very talented indeed. The film at this point takes a hard left turn to celebrity biography and Croatia, and it seems as though Marc has finally found a measure of stability.

If only life followed the plot lines of made-for-TV movies. In the final third of “Prodigal Sons,’’ we and Kimberly watch helplessly as Marc unravels, undone by his wayward neurons and a lingering, unshakeable resentment toward his perfect kid brother. That the golden boy is now a golden girl — a sophisticated, articulate Manhattanite — both focuses Marc’s anger and confounds it, and nothing Kimberly can say about the pain she felt (and feels) can pierce his armor.

These scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch, and Reed — a magazine editor whose first movie this is — doesn’t have the critical distance or the directorial skill to contextualize them. So she just keeps filming, hoping for resolution to miraculously happen. Is that why we make movies about our families in the first place? To give rough sense to the chaos we’ve escaped? Because life doesn’t work that way, “Prodigal Sons’’ begins to feel like the exploitation of a seriously ill man.

There’s still enough to chew on to recommend the movie, not least the oddly touching sight of two siblings whose very identities have been altered by surgery. Marc has lost his, Kimberly has gained hers, and all it has done is rearrange the emotional furniture. “Marc would have given anything to be the man I would have given anything to not be,’’ Kimberly says ruefully on the soundtrack, and there’s the movie’s modern moral if you need one: The flesh may be mutable, but family dysfunction is forever.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

PRODIGAL SONS

Directed by: Kimberly Reed

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 87 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: language, domestic violence)

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