Prodigal Sons
Martin J. Kidston Independent Record - Carol McKerrow, left, and Kim Reed, discuss the making of Reed's documentary "Prodigal Sons," in this Sept. 26, 2009, file photo. They will appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show today. Martin J. Kidston Independent Record

A capacity crowd of nearly 250 people packed Plymouth Congregational Church on Friday to screen a documentary film directed and produced by Helena-born filmmaker Kim Reed.

The evening came with much anticipation - church officials weren't sure how the audience would respond to the subject of sexual identity and mental illness, while the family portrayed in the film had its own misgivings.

By the end of the evening, however, any concerns were laid to rest.

"This is the very first time our film has been in this community," said Carol McKerrow, the mother of the three children portrayed in the movie. "In absolutely every way, the reception has been supportive and embracing and absolutely overwhelming."

To understand the concerns one must understand the movie. The screening of "Prodigal Sons," directed and co-produced by Reed, follows a family of three children.

The oldest, Marc, suffered traumatic brain injury in a car crash and has struggled ever since with mental illness. The youngest son, Paul, is gay while the middle child, formerly Pat McKerrow - a star quarterback for the 1985 Helena Bengal football team - returned to Helena as a woman after attending film school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Questions from the audience focused largely on the film, its making and how it affected the family.

One woman asked if a portion of the proceeds were going to a cause. Another asked how the film has been received by audiences of different ages.

"I think the issues of me being transgender or Todd being gay matter less to younger audiences," Reed answered. "I think it's just not as big of a deal, and I think that's a good thing."

The same question was posed to Gary and June Hartze after the screening. The couple has known the McKerrow family for 30 years, though Mr. Hartze admitted that he wasn't always receptive to the family's struggles.

He has since changed his mind.

"When she (Reed) came back for her dad's funeral, I ignored her because I had a hard time accepting what she had done," Mr. Hartze said. "But I wanted to catch her tonight to tell her how I felt now. "

Mr. Hartze said he came to accept Reed and her decision to become a woman by thinking about the McKerrow family and what it had gone through.

Accepting those who are different, Mr. Hartze said, isn't a skill reserved for the young alone.

"Maybe us older generation need to open our eyes to things like this that are happening that we need to accept a little more," he said.

The evening proved more of a reception - a sort of welcoming - than a test of acceptance. Many of those questioned after the film spoke as if they'd arrived to the screening with open minds and open hearts.

Cathy Barker, pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, was pleased with Friday's show. She praised Carol McKerrow for her courage, as well as Reed for making the film and giving a voice to those who are sometimes shunned or overlooked.

"I wish every church could be open and welcoming to everyone," Barker said. "It's not always official, but there are warm and loving people in every congregation. We hope we can provide that kind of welcome to the community here and be identified as a place that's safe and loving and accepting."

The screening, attended by some familiar Helena faces, also attracted New York City writer Andrew Solomon, who won the National Book Award with his latest work, "The Noon Day Demon: An Atlas of Depression."

Solomon said he became friends with Reed and, after meeting a family with a transgender child, he set out to write his next book on transgender people and their families.

He called the film "amazing" and said he wanted to see the community from which it was born.

"During my research, I've found people who were not accepted by their family, people who were accepted by their family but not by their community, and people who were accepted by their family and by their community but were told they were sinners by their church," he said.

"I've found an incredible spirit of acceptance and warmth of support here in Helena, which has been great to find," he added.

But the film is more than a story about Reed's search for her new identity as a woman. Much of the story follows her brother, Marc, who suffered traumatic brain injury after he was involved in a Las Vegas car accident.

Throughout the film, Marc undergoes wild mood swings. He turns from a loving brother to a seemingly distant man with bouts of rage and, at times, violence.

When asked by an audience member, Reed said her brother has had setbacks since the film was made. His condition has worsened and his memory continues to slip.

But Reed said the family has restructured - a process witnessed in the film. That has helped Marc receive the mental-health care he needs.

"My relationship with Marc is better than ever," Reed said. "Making this film, which I think of as our film, is something that really brought us together. I really wish that he could be here."

Getting a ticket for Friday's screening wasn't an easy task, as Margo Brooke pointed out.

She had waited for more than a month from the show and said the church was a perfect place to show the film.

"I'm Catholic, and I saw many, many Catholics here," Brooke said. "That line might be a lot thinner than we thought between male and female. It's amazing to see how Kim looks and talks exactly like her mother."

Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or mkidston@helenair.com

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