Kimberly Reed's award-winning, autobiographical documentary Prodigal Sons and Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, help illuminate the often painful experience of people trying to move on from dark personal and family pasts. These families don't quite put the "fun" in dysfunctional, cinematically speaking, but that's a good thing.
Prodigal Sons is the more compelling of the two for GLBT audiences, since Reed is herself transgender and one of her brothers, Todd McKerrow, is gay. As the former high school football-team-captain-turned-filmmaker notes in her director's statement, she started out making a movie about her other, adopted brother's journey. Marc McKerrow is an untrained piano prodigy who, sadly, suffered a life-altering head injury in a car accident when he was 21 years old. Prone to violent mood swings, Marc has since estranged himself from Kim and Todd. When Marc and Kim meet for the first time in ten years at their Helena, Montana high school reunion, the situation inevitably reopens old wounds stemming from their childhood sibling rivalry and Kim's later sex change.
Intent on reconciling with both her older brother and her past life as a young man, Kim extended her time in Helena from one week to over three months. She documented as much as possible on video, so viewers subsequently get glimpses of Marc's rages as well as of the siblings' compassionate mother, Carol, and Kim's dedicated partner, Claire.
We are also privy to the unexpected revelation that Marc was born to Rebecca Welles, the daughter of silver screen legends Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Marc does bear an uncanny resemblance to Orson, which is confirmed by the late actor-director's one-time lover, Oja Kodar. As a result of this, Prodigal Sons becomes a multi-generational exposé of family secrets stretching from Hollywood to Montana to New York, with a stop at Kodar's home in Bosnia.
I came away from the film, though, wishing that Kim had spent as much time focusing on her own journey and difficulties as she does on Marc's. As much as their stories are intertwined, Kim's own story is unique and interesting in its own right. While we see vintage home movies of Kim in her prior incarnation as star athlete Paul McKerrow, we don't see or hear much about her actual transition or about her life as an aspiring professional filmmaker. I also would have liked to have heard more from Todd, who seems too often on the sidelines.
Since Prodigal Sons is her first feature-length documentary — and an effective, interesting one at that — I'll cut Kim some slack. It opens today in Los Angeles and Irvine, CA, in Arizona and San Diego on the 26th, and in other US cities come April. No doubt, one will find something to identify with in the McKerrow-Reed family's travails.
Meanwhile, Roger Greenberg, the central character in Baumbach's new movie Greenberg, is in so much denial about his past that he denies his Jewish heritage to friends despite his last name and the fact that his family lives in a predominantly, and obviously, orthodox Jewish neighborhood. He also refuses to own up to the fact that he is an alcoholic (his diet consists almost solely of whiskey and ice cream bars), and that he single-handedly torpedoed his friends' dream that the high school band they formed together would go professional.
Roger's day of reckoning comes when his Vietnam-bound brother (played by Chris Messina, who was Julie/Amy Adams' husband in Julie & Julia) lures him from New York to Los Angeles to house- and dog-sit for a month. While there, he makes a very tentative romantic connection with his brother's personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig, an actress on-the-rise best known to date for the Duplass Brothers' goofy Baghead). Florence is an aspiring singer living a simple life, and is nearly 20 years younger than Roger. While she is attracted to Roger, Florence naturally finds his non-committal nature and periodic, nasty tirades unappealing. Still, something begins to grow between them, and Roger sloooowly starts to grow up.
Ben Stiller plays Roger, thinner than usual and keeping his typical, exuberant schtick in check apart from a scene where he snorts coke with some college students, when wild-eyed mania is appropriate. It's an affecting performance and Stiller's best dramatic turn yet. As Florence, Gerwig is refreshingly — and attractively — naturalistic. I found her character a bit of a cipher and would have liked to know more about Florence's past and what makes her tick, but Gerwig can't be blamed for this. Rhys Ifans (so memorable in Notting Hill, and some readers may recall his pseudo-gay stalker role in Enduring Love) is also quietly effective here as Roger's former best friend.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, which focused on the members of a dysfunctional family. He most recently co-adapted the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox with his filmmaking soul mate, Wes Anderson. Greenberg has an even more low budget, indie feel to it than Baumbach's previous works as director, which makes his new film all the more poignant. And poignant it is, especially when it reaches its hopeful finale.
Greenberg is produced by the openly gay Scott Rudin, which should be a strong selling point for GLBT filmgoers if the fact that this is a great film isn't enough. As one of its characters says, "Hurt people hurt people." Those of us from dysfunctional families — which is most of us — have been hurt, and we've all hurt others at times; turns out that there's at least a little bit of Greenberg in all of us.
UPDATE: Greenberg is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and Prodigal Sons is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.