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Prodigal Sons

That staple of the modern documentary -- the dysfunctional family -- receives a couple of unique twists in "Prodigal Sons," a sad, compelling docu that leaves a few key questions frustratingly unanswered.

That staple of the modern documentary — the dysfunctional family — receives a couple of unique twists in “Prodigal Sons.” Fact that the film was directed by a transsexual returning to her native Helena, Mont., two decades after having left as a star high school quarterback, seems almost commonplace compared to the circumstances of Kimberly Reed’s adopted brother, who only recently discovered he is the hitherto unknown grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Sad, compelling docu leaves a few key questions frustratingly unanswered, but the raw materials here are sufficiently bracing to position this for a strong fest life and good prospects on docu-friendly webs internationally, with ancillary buff interest due to the Welles connection.

Although Reed, a Gotham-based film and magazine editor, faced major issues of her own as she headed home for the first time as a woman, her understandable preoccupations about how she’d be received become just a part of the overall emotional mosaic of a family dynamic so complicated that it may well be unresolvable. Tennessee Williams looks like “Sesame Street” compared to this.

Lensed largely in Big Sky country, with side trips to San Francisco, New York and Croatia (the latter to see Welles’ longtime paramour and soulmate Oja Kodar), pic quickly sketches out the basics: Believing they couldn’t conceive, the filmmaker’s father and mother — a doctor and schoolteacher, respectively — adopted a baby boy at birth, whereupon they quickly had two sons of their own. Adopted Marc McKerrow soon fell into the shadow of the highly accomplished Paul, a good student and an attractive blond athlete. Third brother Todd, who later turns up in Montana, is pointedly shown dressing up in girls’ clothes in homemovies, with amusingly predictable adult results.

Forewarned that Paul will be showing up at their high school reunion as Kim, long-ago classmates are very accepting of the former footballer’s transition, as is Kim’s mother (Dad died two years earlier); no condescension toward or caricaturing of small-town Americans here. Rangy, curvy and attractive, Kim, accompanied by her current lover, is initially wary but soon seems at home on the range.

Then there is Marc. Fat, balding, socially awkward and heavily medicated, he announces that an accident at 21 resulted in head injuries and partial brain removal, which no doubt accounts for his mental disconnects and drastic mood swings. You never know what you’re going to get with this guy, who can be warm and emotionally open one minute and viciously assaultive the next. Although he’s a got a wife and daughter and can play fluid impromptu piano, it’s unclear just how he’s made his way through life to this point.

Kim’s genuine efforts to reconcile with Marc, who still harbors deep resentment toward his slightly younger sibling, occupy the heart of the movie. Midsection is devoted to Marc’s discovery of his true identity as the grandson of two Hollywood legends, beginning with the appalling fact that the first and only time he saw his mother, Rebecca Welles, was at her funeral.

The luminous Kodar could not be more welcoming or emotionally supportive when the eccentric troupe visits her in Croatia. Underlying everything, however, is the unspoken weirdness of it all — Marc’s evident misfortune, as with his mother, of having inherited Orson’s looks and Rita’s brains; his helpless lost-soul status, the bizarre roll of the dice that resulted in his being the only known grandchild of the cinematic boy genius (Marc has subsequently adopted the Welles name).

Beyond these lie the issues the film never raises: Assuming we accept Marc’s heredity on faith, some further details would have been welcome. Who was Marc’s father? What happened to Rebecca, who was married twice and had no further children of her own, that she died in between establishing contact with her son and their appointed meeting? Despite her mother’s celebrity, Rebecca was always the most obscure of Welles’ three legitimate children, and Reed does nothing to illuminate her.

After Kim ruminates on how she’s got to face up to her past as a young man she has long insisted “wasn’t me,” the film’s latter stretch takes a disturbing turn into brutal psychodrama at a family Christmas get-together that ends up like “A Streetcar Named Desire” done a la “The Real World.”

Although the chronology is sometimes confusing, Reed, with the help of co-editor Shannon Kennedy and unobtrusive lenser John Keitel, has captured a lot onscreen here, resulting in a film that will fascinate inquisitive viewers on multiple levels.

Prodigal Sons

Production: A Big Sky presentation. Produced by John Keitel, Kimberly Reed. Executive producers, Robert Hawk, Gail Silva. Co-producer, Louise Rosen. Directed by Kimberly Reed.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), John Keitel; editors, Shannon Kennedy, Reed; music, T. Griffin; additional camera, Charles Dye, Claire Jones, Reed; additional editor, Marc Senter. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Aug. 25, 2008. (In Telluride Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

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