★★☆☆☆

Though the twists and turns of an extraordinary story – a baby stolen at birth, mistaken identities, genealogical discoveries, a fifty-year quest for the truth – are unquestionably compelling, Ursula Macfarlane’s The Lost Sons has the feel of a somewhat formulaic, made-for-TV documentary.

That’s not to say there is anything inherently wrong with that, but the Documentary Spotlight strand of SXSW seems an odd place to debut this film. In any case, backed by CNN Films and RAW (Fear City and Don’t F**k with Cats – both Netflix successes), The Lost Sons opens with its central figure. “My name is Paul Fronczak, but who am I really?” For all the sympathy that he should garner from here on out, the front-on soapbox that the filmmaker affords her main subject gives the impression that he – and not she – is the one asking the questions, driving the message, seeking the attention. That said, the facts of the case, which follow the self-reflexive opening gambit, are as engrossing as they are unclear.

Born in Chicago in April 1964, Paul is stolen from his mother’s arms by a woman dressed as a nurse. Fifteen months later, a child is left abandoned in a pram on the side of the road in Newark, New Jersey. Under overwhelming pressure from the press, the FBI reunite this foundling with the couple assumed to be his biological parents. The Fronczaks are unquestioning in their acceptance of Paul as their own infant child. But with just twenty-five minutes gone, it’s clear that this is perhaps not a happy ever after story, that there’s a sting or two left to tell. Macfarlane, whose recent work includes gun violence expose One Deadly Weekend in America and chronicle of the Harvey Weinstein scandal Untouchable, pulls back the layers of the onion, landing a number of bombshell moments.

The plurality of the film’s title is a bit of a giveaway, but without straying too far into spoiler territory, DNA tests and unexpected changes to family trees have Paul further questioning his sense of self and all that he has known. It would be unjust to call the film a vanity project, but little time is spent examining the effect his actions had on those around him – all perspectives flow to and from what it meant for Paul, the film’s epicentre. Though his daughter seems to take it all in her stride, the effects of an obsession which broke down a marriage are addressed only in passing. Paul’s mother and brother are glimpsed momentarily, but learning of a rift that meant he was ostracised from his family for several years, we yearn for harder questions to be asked.

Contextual reconstructions, shot in the UK and South Africa, add little depth and sequences where Fronczak has breakfast or plays in a park with his daughter are needless, contrived; shots of him working out or riding his motorbike out into the desert and looking off into the distance are similarly unnecessary. With a lot of filler and none of the killer questions that are crying out to be asked, The Lost Sons leaves a lot unsaid. Take a step back from the effect of the shocking material, and the by-the-numbers construction of the film makes it too formulaic to leave a lasting impact.

SXSW 2021 takes place between the 16-20 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63