‘The Lost Sons’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Ursula Macfarlane’s doc follows a man’s quest to solve his own separated-at-birth mystery.

A twisty true-crime story loses much of its appeal in Ursula Macfarlane’s The Lost Sons, a “who am I?” doc whose subject is more fascinated with that question than most viewers will be. Paul Fronczak was ten years old when he learned he had been the victim of a foiled newborn abduction; only decades later did he realize his story was even more convoluted. Though well shot, the CNN-coproduced film always feels TV-grade at best; its level of drama (not to mention its failure to find anything universal in the specifics of Fronczak’s tale) is out-of-place on a festival schedule, even in a year of diminished options.

In 1964, Fronczak’s mother Dora had just enjoyed her first visit with her new baby in Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital when a woman dressed as a nurse took the child, ostensibly for a doctor’s examination, and quietly fled the building. By the time administrators realized this and got cops to the scene, the woman had vanished and was “never seen again.”

The Bottom Line

Less gripping than a big-screen doc should be.

Recounting this episode, Macfarlane relies heavily on reenactments and spends more time than required observing each moment. The impression of something being padded to reach feature length will grow stronger in the film’s midsection, as we follow Paul (who, 15 months after the kidnapping, was found abandoned in New Jersey) through the narrative of his early adult life — during which his turbulent origin story was little more than a nagging question in the back of his head. A handsome man whose work (as a member of a rock band, then as an actor) involves being the focus of some attention, he comes off as self-absorbed. Macfarlane contributes to this by having him address the camera head-on in interviews, and by staging unnecessary sequences like the motorcycle ride into the desert that illustrates some of the armchair-psychology her subjects indulge in.

The film has plodded to near its midpoint before the twists begin to arrive. A DNA test reveals that Paul is definitely not Dora’s biological son. Not only does this create a rift between him and the parents who raised him, and inspire Paul to start looking for his real parents — it reopens mysteries around the original Paul’s abduction.

Many of these questions will be answered; some likely never will. Genealogy buffs will appreciate much of the film’s second half, where we meet volunteer detectives from around the country: As the Fronczak case attracted national media attention, geneticists and hobbyists got in touch, combing through archives and DNA tests to connect Paul to distant relatives and further clues. A great deal of human drama underlies all this, but not all of it makes it to the screen. Only in one scene do we feel we’re participating in the story rather than hearing it second-hand: We go with Paul to meet a woman who babysat him as an infant, and hear her recount a story that is mysterious, sad and disturbing.

Some players in the ever-expanding narrative refuse to talk to Macfarlane, some will with limitations and some may or may not even be alive. With hindsight, some may conclude that Dora and Chester Fronczak were right to accept good news unquestioningly when authorities brought them a toddler they thought was their missing baby, then to live their lives without ever discussing the painful episode or telling their son what happened. Others will accept Paul’s oft-stated conviction that he can’t know who he is unless he knows the woman who gave birth to him — and other members of the family he only learns of as the story unfolds.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Raw, CNN Films
Director: Ursula Macfarlane
Producers: Gagan Rehill
Executive producers: Liesel Evans, Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton, Ross Dinerstein
Directors of photography: Neil Harvey, Tim Cragg, Jean-Louis Schuller, Isaac Mead-Long
Editor: Andy R. Worboys
Composer: Segun Akinola
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

99 minutes