Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Family Affair

While it is being advertised as a real-life version of The Kids Are All Right, last year's Oscar-nominated movie about a lesbian couple raising two teenagers conceived with the help of an initially anonymous sperm donor, it may disappoint some prospective viewers to learn that Donor Unknown only briefly acknowledges the two pairs of same-sex parents included. The documentary will premiere tonight on the PBS series Independent Lens (check local listings for time and channel).

Rather, the focus is on young JoEllen Marsh and her search for the man she knows only as "Donor 150" via the California Cryobank. Once she learns his true identity is Jeffrey Harrison (a former Playgirl model and dancer in a male revue who now lives in an RV with his dogs and a pet pigeon), his biography and JoEllen's effort to meet him fuel the film's narrative drive. Along the way, JoEllen and viewers meet 14 known people fathered by Harrison, who made contributions to the Cryobank as many as four times a week during the 1980's. Theoretically, thousands of young people living today may owe their conception to Harrison and he may still be fathering children through the donations he made 30 years ago. (An amusing mention is made that the California Cryobank is today the 6th largest user of Fed Ex in the Golden State.)

Donor Unknown offers insight into a fascinating, ongoing saga, even if Harrison strikes one as a less-than-desirable father in many respects. The documentary raises the enduringly pertinent question, "What is the importance/meaning of a father?" As some of JoEllen's half-siblings conclude once they connected with Harrison, he represented "the death of a dream" as a result of both their idealized notions and the sad state of his life.

Harrison, however, doesn't seem to regret his free-spirited past or present. He refers to himself as "a fringe monkey" who, like some wild primates, is alienated from the rest of the tribe but ultimately serves as its protector and warns the others when danger is approaching. While I don't see Harrison fulfilling that responsibility as well as he thinks he does, his analogy nonetheless provides an interesting consideration of the roles outsiders like him play in our society.

Directed with a truly objective eye by Jerry Rothwell, Donor Unknown is a glimpse into another dimension of the ever-evolving institution we call "family."

Reverend's Rating: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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