A baby is taken from a hospital without a trace. 15 months later, a toddler is found abandoned in a city 800 miles away. Could this be the same child? And if so, how on earth did he get there? The Lost Sons goes in search of answers.
As the end credits of Ursula Macfarlane’s gripping documentary The Lost Sons begin to roll, the soft strings of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” start to play. Its use, coming after 100-minutes of captivating storytelling, is more than a little on the nose.
In October 1964, in the city that shares the band’s name, a newborn is taken from a hospital. Paul Joseph Fronczak, barely a day old, vanishes without a trace. His parents, Dora and Chester—as well as the employees at Michael Reese hospital—are left devastated and dumbfounded. There is, however, one key lead: a woman, posing as a nurse and purporting to be under instructions from the doctor, had asked Dora for her baby. Despite the subsequent media storm and extensive manhunt, for the best part of two years, it was the last time anyone saw Paul.
Then, in 1965, a toddler is found abandoned in a stroller on a street in Newark, New Jersey. The infant is dressed smartly and has a black eye. Beyond that, little else is known. After the child is taken into foster care, the authorities of Chicago and New Jersey start putting two and two together. When the FBI eventually bring the boy to Dora and Chester, they are overjoyed, convinced their lost son has been found.
But is this really Paul Fronczak? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s this question, and the search for its answer, that quickly drives forward this remarkable tale. Deep down, we probably already know the answer, but to disclose anything more would almost certainly dimmish the film’s allure. For many US viewers, Paul’s story may already be familiar. For those elsewhere, this sprawling, decades-long saga—tapping into the same insatiable audience appetite for stranger-than-fiction stories harnessed by the likes of The Imposter and Three Identical Strangers—is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible.
And, like its contemporaries (the film shares the same production team as Wardle’s movie), The Lost Sons pieces together its mystery with shrewd craft. At times, the techniques are overt: the initial withholding of key details, the careful plotting of startling revelations. At others—namely, a conversation between Fronczak and a former babysitter—the film exudes an engrossing rawness and authenticity.
There is, however, an unshakable feeling of performance baked into all of this. Recreations, which occasionally threaten to become a hindrance, blend with talking-head testimony and news footage with varying degrees of cohesion. Meanwhile, the camera-confident Fronczak, a musician-turned-actor who was once George Clooney’s stand-in, becomes an increasingly autonomous, influential figure in Macfarlane’s film. While irrefutably enthralling, it begs the question of what kind of movie a more impartial approach might have yielded.
But, for the most part, The Lost Sons makes for compelling viewing. As it progresses, a deeper mediation on identity and obsession slowly starts to unfurl. It’s a bracing development, and one that makes for a more holistic film. Macfarlane pursues not simply the who, the what and the why of the story, but, more poignantly, the cost of such a vehement search for truth.
Its conclusions may not always be satisfactory—or even conclusions at all—but, like the song that sounds over its closing frames, The Lost Sons remains a powerful myriad of emotion: uplifting yet desperately sad.
On the promise of its intriguing premise, The Lost Sons largely delivers. Dark, complex and with plenty of twists. But in the end, this is another instance of a real-life mystery raising more questions than it provides answers.
Words by George Nash
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