Movies · Reviews

‘The Lost Sons’ Turns a Lost Childhood Into a Cinematic Crisis

Ursula Macfarlane’s buzzy SXSW documentary explores what happens when one man’s search for the truth becomes an obsession.
The Lost Sons Cnn Films
CNN Films
By  · Published on March 17th, 2021

Who has ownership over nonfiction stories? This is just one of the questions raised by The Lost Sons, the buzzy new true-crime documentary premiering at this year’s SXSW film festival. What begins as a reenactment of a long-forgotten crime soon evolves into a film crammed with life-altering revelations. But these revelations come at a cost, and before long, one man finds himself upending the worlds of those around him in search of the truth.

For Paul Joseph Fronczak, life changed forever — if not exactly immediately — at the age of ten. While searching for Christmas presents hidden in the basement of his family home, a young Fronczak discovered a box of newspaper clippings that detailed his abduction and unexpected return as a newborn. And although his parents are quick to downplay the events following his birth, those details are never far from his mind.

But the truth is so much stranger than fiction. Picking up after the events of his 2018 autobiography, The Foundling, the documentary follows Fronczak as he attempts to unpack a series of tragic mysteries. Not only does Fronczak learn that he might not be Paul Joseph — the boy who went missing from the hospital all those decades ago — he might be at the center of another disappearance with his biological parents. Worried that the trail might go cold without a bit of help, Fronczak turns to the media to help tell his story. This proves to be a fateful decision that advances his cause as quickly as it dissolves his family life.

If the drive behind modern documentaries is to keep piling on the twists until the audience gets dizzy, then The Lost Sons is destined to be a hit. Through a series of detailed reenactments, director Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) quickly establishes the original kidnapping stakes before the adult Fronczak picks up the narrative. These early scenes are the film’s most cinematic, blending music, archival footage, and reenactment to demonstrate the happy ending that almost was for the Fronczak family.

Macfarlane’s documentary is also a love letter to the field of genetics, with a group of dedicated young women dedicating their lives to adding branches back to the empty Fronczak family tree. The way these women turn genetic markers and archival research into real-life revelations is a marvel; what seems to be a hopeless dead-end at first quickly becomes a murky — but visible — picture of the families that should’ve been.

But in his endless pursuit of the truth about his childhood, Fronczak leaves behind a trail of broken souls. The Lost Sons is full of interviews with friends and family members — including his ex-wife Michelle and his younger brother David –who seem to swallow their pain and feelings of betrayal to help Fronczak finish his life’s work. As new distant relatives become known, Fronczak embarks on a seemingly never-ending journey to tear apart the lives of loved ones and strangers alike.

And that makes it hard to know how to feel about the documentary. As The Lost Sons unfolds, we learn that Fronczak’s parents begged him not to order the DNA test and that his biological siblings refused to participate in the final production. We realize that the real Paul Joseph — who died shortly after being contacted by George Knapp’s team — preferred his anonymity and that his daughters are hurt by theories that paint their grandmother as the kidnapper. This emotional fallout does not go unnoticed by Fronczak. “People are gonna fucking hate me, aren’t they?” he asks the camera with a smile.

If we judge The Other Sons on the facts alone, then it is a work of mind-bending true crime documentary on par with Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers or Bart Layton’s The Imposter. This documentary has genuine potential to break through to mainstream audiences and captivate social media for weeks on end. But we must also reconcile that Paul Joseph Fronczak is both subject and storyteller; his Executive Producer credit features prominently in the end credits, and the story that he wishes to tell is the one that ends up on the screen.

Does that earn our hatred? It’s hard to say. Certainly, Fronczak should be understood as a victim, and he has every right to pursue the truth about his childhood. But as these twists and turns unfold and the production team forces strangers to confront facts better left buried, we do begin to wonder where the boundaries of ownership over this story begin to overlap and blur. Is this the direction a more impartial storyteller would push the story? We may never know.

There is no shame in Fronczak viewing the events The Lost Sons as his life’s work. We certainly understand him to be just as passionate and protective of his story as any other artist or creator. But while this documentary will no-doubt turn more than a few heads on future streaming platforms, it does leave us with lingering questions about the nature of the artist and the art. Here’s hoping that he can find his truth without leaving too many more upended lives in his wake.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)