The Lost Sons, 2021.
Directed by Ursula Macfarlane.
1960s Chicago, a baby is kidnapped from a hospital. Fifteen months later, a toddler is abandoned. Could he be the same baby?
Ursula Macfarlane’s (Untouchable) new documentary certainly doesn’t leave viewers wanting for scandal, yet its intertwined tableau of stories and identities also feels worthy of a larger, more ambitious canvas than a mere film can support.
In 1964 Chicago, newborn baby Paul Fronczak was kidnapped from the hospital of his birth by a woman pretending to be a nurse. Despite the immediate media circus, Paul’s trail quickly went cold until 1966, when a toddler was found abandoned in New Jersey, believed to be the kidnapped infant. Without the benefit of DNA testing, Paul’s parents Chester and Dora Fronczak were left to conclude for themselves that this boy had to be Paul, and took him home as their own.
While on one hand self-deception is an extremely powerful force, it’s clear today that the FBI encouraged the Fronczaks to accept the boy as their son, amid the organisation’s own desire to neatly sew up a case of enormous public interest. Knowing what we do now, it speaks to humanity’s general desire for a quick resolution to unspeakable tragedy, rather than face up to the more discomforting truth.
In the doc’s opening moments, a middle-aged man introduces himself as Paul Fronczak, before adding, “Who am I?” As a child Paul knew little of being kidnapped, yet as a young man seemed acutely aware that something was off with his life, that he was in pursuit of a missing piece. The truth, which only came to him when he himself became a father in more recent years, and was confirmed by a DNA test, is that he isn’t the real Paul Fronczak at all.
It goes without saying that such a revelation would upend anyone’s well-cemented sense of identity, and in Paul’s case his very idea of self – his name and birthday, for starters – don’t belong to him. To say that Paul’s road towards closure is an uneasy one is a colossal understatement, and beyond himself, this information raises many additional questions – how does he explain this to the people who raised him, and perhaps more pressingly, what the hell happened to the real Paul?
What follows is a fascinating tale of obsession, as the man introduced to us as Paul attempts to get to the bottom of several mysteries which could in of themselves fill a single feature film documentary. And though it’s easy to see the tacky, sensationalist potential of a story like this unfurled in documentary form, Macfarlane keeps things respectful and pointed, doling the mystery out in more-or-less chronological fashion without excessive narrative re-jigging for the sake of what-a-twist shock moments.
The content is really stunning enough that such tricks are totally unnecessary. As Paul attempts to dig deeper into the mystery of his own abandonment, he’s aided by a team of genealogists who endeavour to untangle his genetic tree and discover his parentage. With the living genetic leads being whittled down by the ever-moving passage of time, the clock is always ticking.
This is really the point at which the doc would’ve merited a more long-form delivery vessel, as the web of Paul’s ancestry is pulled back to reveal the tragic stories of many other people. Moreover, when unexpected answers arrive for one of the major mysteries, it feels rushed through with bizarre expediency, robbing it of some impact in the process. You’re barely able to wrap your head around one rug-pull before another is thrown at you – such is the limitation of a feature-length film.
But no matter what shape this documentary takes, the story is, all in all, left upsettingly unfinished, with two significant threads left stingingly hanging, both cloistered behind the spectres of the deceased who clearly weren’t much keen to provide details.
Though certainly outrageous and shocking enough to fascinate true crime enthusiasts, Macfarlane deserves credit for her matter-of-fact treatment of a case ripe for a more tactless approach, even if the frenzied pace also feels to the tale’s detriment overall.
A heartbreaking stranger-than-fiction documentary which strains to cram a miniseries’ worth of investigations, revelations, and unanswered questions into 98 minutes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.