Movie Review: Prodigal Sons (2008)
Recently, while exploring my Netflix account to see what's available to stream that I'm interested in (almost nothing, it seems, I may not keep the account long enough to pay for it), I decided to see which transgender-related movies were available. There haven't been many movies related to the subject made at all, and most of them are tragedies, so that narrows the list. And Netflix is still trying to milk the DVD service (for extra money, of course), so most of the ones I wanted to see weren't available to stream. However, there were a couple that caught my eye, one of them being "Prodigal Sons". I'd never heard of it, but the description was intriguing; it's a documentary about a trans woman who left Montana to become a filmmaker in New York City, and covers her story of returning to Montana to reconnect with her past, including old high school classmates and some estranged family members.
Right off the bat, any "left a small town to become a successful yuppie" narrative connects with me in a very strong way, and when the central character is a fellow trans woman, I can't not watch it. But it was so, so much more than that.
The core of the story revolves around Kim, the main character and director/writer of the film, trying to reconnect with her estranged brother. They were close in high school, but when she left town and transitioned, they lost touch. So, their story takes up most of the film, and it's a very compelling, strong story, exemplifying the truism that truth is often stranger than fiction. Well worth watching, just for that; I don't want to give away the twists it takes, but trust me, it's fascinating and heartwarming.
The other components of the story, relating to Kim's high school reunion and details of her transition, are less important than I anticipated, but very, very relatable to any trans person. At first, it seems very anticlimactic; she shows up at the high school reunion, and aside from her brother and maybe one person who's trying to overthink it, everyone welcomes her with open arms as the person she is now, not who she used to be. There are a few instances where someone's not quite sure how best to tell a story about Kim pre-transition, but considering that this is in rural Montana, it's truly remarkable how uneventful this reunion is. As the film goes on, most of her interactions with people from her past in Montana are like this, completely ordinary and accepting. However, the more this is shown, the more it becomes clear that the conflict is largely not between her and the people she grew up with, the conflict is internal for her.
This is something that non-TG people have a very hard time grasping, because they have no frame of reference for it. And, despite all our analogies and artfully crafted explanations, trying to convey the intricacies of what it feels like to grow up as a transgender person is marginally effective at best, because of this lack of emotional reference points. However, Prodigal Sons finds a brilliant way to externalize these issues: The storyline with Kim's brother.
Even though the film opens on the high school reunion, it quickly becomes clear that it was an afterthought for Kim. The real reason she went to Montana was to attempt to reconnect with her brother. Which, at first, seems to go reasonably well; he's a bit psychologically unstable, for clear-cut medical reasons, but they both attempt to rebuild a relationship. As the story progresses, this falls apart spectacularly. Again, I don't want to reveal too much, but Kim's brother makes it clear that their shared past is extremely important to him, to the point that he has a large number of photos of their childhood that include Kim pre-transition, which he reviews any chance he gets. But Kim, like most trans people, has a visceral negative reaction to pre-transition photos of herself, and is clearly uncomfortable just being in the state where she grew up, let alone talking about her football glory days and high school memories. She tries to help her brother move past those memories, asks him not to show those photos to anyone, and even helps him try to explore some new facets of his past that are separate from hers. Unfortunately, no matter what she does, there is nothing that will get him to stop dwelling on her past.
Reconciling past with present is a major issue for trans people who weren't lucky enough to start transitioning in childhood, but somehow it's also one of our greatest enigmas, something that's never really discussed outside the occasional blog post. Which makes this film all the more powerful, since it deals with something both unique to trans people and rarely discussed in media in a way that's helpful for us. There's no one way to sort that out, of course, but the default preference is a scorched-earth decimation of anything related to pre-transition life, especially for trans people from rural areas. Old friends can stick around, on a case-by-case basis, but we definitely want to nuke all pre-transition photos, and we're generally not in a hurry to display old mementos. And if someone has strong, fond memories of the person we used to pretend to be? We're not usually in a huge hurry to hear it.
What this film demonstrates, more clearly than anything else I've seen or read, is the fundamental flaw in this approach: It's selfish. We're not the only person in those photos, and if we are, we're generally not the ones holding onto them so tightly. We're not the only person in the glory days story. Navigating the psychological turmoil of being transgender is so difficult that a terrifying percentage don't survive the trip without eating a bullet, so it's not surprising that those of us who make it can be a bit irrational and defensive about the transition process. Thus, it's easy to forget that the most painful memories of our lives might be the happiest memories to someone else.
Of course, someone else's fondness for our past lives cannot override our discomfort, and that was definitely not the takeway from this film. Rather, the lesson that many of us need to hear, and that resonated so strongly with me, is that we cannot erase the past without hurting a lot of people in the process. Instead, we must carefully integrate the past in a way that causes the least harm to all involved. And there's no specific answer for that. It's something we need to work out carefully, individually, slowly.
In my case, several years ago, I set out a plan that, when my transition neared completion and I no longer needed my old name for work, I would purge all my Facebook friends and delete the account, since all of them were people I went to school with who I hadn't talked to in awhile. It was a nice thought, at the time, and made the obligatory use of Facebook under my old name to keep up appearances (for employers and a few family members, mostly) less uncomfortable. As the day to carry out that plan neared, I modified it, gradually bringing more and more people into the list of people I really didn't want to lose contact with. Plus, the main reason I didn't talk to high school friends much was mostly because I didn't allow any of them to know the real me at all. So, I picked out a dozen or so of the most liberal-minded people on my Facebook account, plus some family members, told them all what was going on and where else to find me, and purged all data from the account. I always anticipated that feeling like a major, therapeutic milestone. In reality? Meh.
Despite swearing up and down that I didn't need anyone in my life who wasn't already in my social circles and following me on Twitter, the truth is that these are all people I shared years of my life with. We made memories together, performed in band together, grew up together. Most of us drifted in separate directions, but it took cutting ties with people I knew on Facebook to realize that those friends did, in fact, bring some value to my life. And, after reflecting on this film and doing some soul-searching, I've decided to reverse the old plan. I still have legitimate reasons for switching to a new account and purging the old one, and I'm still not a fan of Facebook as a site, but my reasons for abandoning old friends instead of attempting to bring them into my new life were terrible, and I feel kinda bad about it. It would be better to tell everyone, and possibly encounter negative reactions, than to attempt to erase old parts of myself, or attempt to erase my former self from the memories of others.
And, of course, there's the age-old question that's a true puzzle for a transgender person: Would I go to a high school reunion? The answer used to be an adamant "no", but now? I'm thinking the answer would probably be "yes".