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SXSW 2021: “The Lost Sons” Documentary Film Review

“The Lost Sons” is a documentary about identity, family and closure. Director Ursula Macfarlane explores the story of a newborn kidnapped in 1960s Chicago and the series of events that led to a present-day reckoning. It’s full of twists and turns, and unsurprisingly comes from CNN Films, who were behind another documentary exploring similar themes, “Three Identical Strangers.” It’s part of the festival’s Documentary Spotlight category for 2021.

This documentary is based on a memoir called “The Foundling,” written by the film’s principal character, Paul Joseph Fronczak along with Alex Tresniowski (who does not appear in the documentary). It opens with a reenactment of 10-year-old Paul discovering newspaper clippings in his home’s crawlspace, where he finds out that he was kidnapped as a newborn baby in April 1964 and subsequently became a national headline. From there, we get talking heads of a student nurse who was there when it happened, Mary Trenchard Petrie, as well as a detective who worked on the case, Robert Savage. It’s clear that the story affects them emotionally to this day.

We then cut to 15 months later in July 1965, when a woman leaves a young boy in a stroller on the sidewalk in Newark, New Jersey. The boy ended up in a foster home nearby, and police communication between Chicago and Newark led to them concluding that this could be the baby who was kidnapped. That would be convenient, wouldn’t it? So the Fronczaks traveled to New Jersey and, believing that this was their long-lost son, took him back to Illinois with them. That brings us back to the reenactment from the beginning, and Paul’s mom wasn’t pleased about his findings. He remembers that she didn’t want to talk about what had happened.

The Fronczaks were a Catholic household, and the inclination to keep things bottled up (or avoid talking about anything uncomfortable) within Catholic families probably played a role in how little Paul knew of his past. But Paul compares his family memories to a Norman Rockwell painting, as the filmmakers cleverly juxtapose footage of the Fronczaks with Rockwell paintings that match them.

Then, Paul’s younger brother, David, begins foreshadowing that something is off, saying that the two grew apart around the time they hit their teen years. Paul’s close friend Jon Bach backed that up, saying that Paul didn’t seem to fit in much with his family: They were always so quiet, and he loved to play and listen to music, especially progressive rock. It’s not until Paul is himself married with a new child that he gains a new curiosity about his history, and decides to set off on a journey that he can’t turn back from. Macfarlane, the director, says, “I was drawn to Paul’s own story, and the universal, primal themes of identity and belonging it explores, as he embarks on his quest to find out what really happened to him. Themes that I think everyone will relate to. I’m sure that probably everyone at some point in their childhood has fantasized that they feel so different to everyone in their immediate family that they couldn’t possibly belong there.”

This documentary is worth watching for its narrative, which branches out in several directions without ever losing its main thread. Paul’s story is the story of a lot of different people, even if it is one-of-a-kind. In the film, he describes it as “really fucked up … it’s like a ‘Twilight Zone.'”

There’s plenty of visual interest, even though the story is interesting by itself. You get the talking heads that are native to documentary filmmaking, but there are also reenactments, footage of Paul in the present and lots of videos and photos from his childhood. It makes the documentary a cohesive package, and it’s clear that Macfarlane put a lot of thought into it during the editing stage.

“The Lost Sons” is an interesting film in that there are a lot of smaller discussions within it of dark themes: kidnapping, child abuse and neglect, betrayals and more. But the film (and its narrative) don’t linger on the heavy for too long, introducing the idea that hope is always there too. You won’t get all the answers you want from this one, but you will probably get a lot more out of it than you expected going in.

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