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'Donor Unknown' review: Common ground beyond nature, nurture

A woman meets her sperm donor-father and sparks a fascinating journey into identity and family in 'Donor Unknown,' Jerry Rothwell's documentary airing on PBS SoCal.

October 22, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Jeffrey Harrison, the sperm donor, in the documentary "Donor Unknown."
Jeffrey Harrison, the sperm donor, in the documentary "Donor Unknown." (Jerry Rothwell / Independent…)

The family has always been a more elastic body than the defenders of its narrowest definition would like to admit, and as science changes the face of procreation, and the Internet increases the flow of information, that body is stretching in new and unexpected ways. "Donor Unknown," which plays locally Sunday on PBS SoCal (KOCE) as part of "Independent Lens," looks at a particular group of people in a particular time — the half siblings anonymously fathered by a single sperm donor — but it's also a story of the general future: "And it's the beginning" are the last words spoken here.

Directed by Jerry Rothwell (who made the equally openhearted, unsentimental 2008 documentary "Heavy Load," about a developmentally disabled British punk band), it begins as the story of JoEllen Marsh, who originally knew her father only as Donor 150. Marsh, around 20 when we meet her, is an ebullient, erudite and attractive young woman, and she provides the spine the story hangs on — even as it gathers from half a dozen other directions into a tale of mutual discovery and shared DNA.

Through an online registry, Marsh was able to discover other children of Donor 150, her half siblings, all close to her own age, five of whom also appear in the film. A newspaper article in which she and half sister Danielle Pagano were featured came accidentally to the attention of their biological father, Jeffrey Harrison, a self-described "beach bum" living with four dogs and a pigeon in a semi-operational RV along Venice Beach. After some thought, he made his identity known.

The film follows Marsh as she goes to meet Harrison and some half siblings. Rothwell holds back some information — that Harrison believes that a "ruling elite" controls the weather, for instance — until late in the story so that you like him before you judge him. He's unconventional and perhaps a little lost, but he isn't crazy, nor is his hodgepodge spirituality particularly radical.

"This earthly life is transitory, and the joys of this world are ephemeral," he had written on his donor profile, moving to tears one couple, who bought his DNA. "Keep your mind open, and if sincere, great fortune will come." But he's not quite the package anyone imagined.

While Marsh is looking for herself in an unknown father, Harrison sees his life as a kind of repudiation of his own, known father, an emotionally remote martinet. "I know what it's like to be a real dad, to love, and hug and look out for," he says; he's talking about the dogs, which makes it no less moving. As to his part in producing actual children, he's come to think he was "somehow karmically asked to be a soul catcher." But he is also clearly not their parent.

For the most part, the film, which is prettily shot, takes a light tone, saving the bulk of its irony for the sperm bank itself, with its porn-festooned "masturbatoriums" and cheery spokesperson pointing out the "celebrity look-alike" feature it offers clients. There is a little criticism directed at the industry and its unkept promise to limit the use of any one donor's sperm. But it's only a kind of sidebar.

In the end, "Donor Unknown" is a celebration of commonality, of the connections you can't deny: Harrison's kids define themselves by what they share, with one another and with their donor-father — their eyebrows and foreheads, their love of animals, their sense of humor and way of tucking their hair behind their ears. We are all the product of individual circumstances, "Donor Unknown" says, but you can only nurture what nature provides.

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