Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 10th, 2021
Future People: The Family of Donor 5114 (Michael Rothman, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Imagine you are minding your business as a freshly minted teen and you receive a Facebook message from someone claiming to be your half-sister. Not only that, but there are more siblings where she came from. Sure, you always knew your mom used a sperm donor to conceive, but the details of the faceless dad, much less the possibility of other children emerging from his DNA contributions, has never really occurred to you. Suddenly, you find yourself part of a large extended family spread out across the United States. if that sounds overwhelming, welcome to Future People: The Family of Donor 5114, director Michael Rothman’s debut documentary, in which we follow an expanding group of children, and their mothers, as they explore the brave new world of interconnectedness brought on by our digital age and heretofore unimagined access to information.
We start on 13-year-old Nathan, living in Denver, Colorado, with his single mother, as he recounts what it was like to get that first missive. Before long, he is off to a reunion in Taos, New Mexico, where 5 half-siblings and their moms have congregated. The kids marvel at their physical similarities, and gather to listen to the 1996 audio recording made at the California Cryobank where their genetic father, Donor 5114, made his deposit. Listening to his voice and reading his written answers to a survey, they each take away different tidbits about who he was, and who therefore they might be. Even those children who had never thought about any parent(s) but the one they know now embark on a journey of self-discovery that, for some, will prove metaphysically profound.
In just over 90 minutes, the movie takes us all the way from those early teenage years to adulthood, pausing at intervals to check in with how our protagonists (with new folks added over time) evolve. There are those who embrace the mystery without it affecting their family units, and then there are others who struggle with their place in this altered universe. They are (beyond Nathan): Alexa, Bradley, Danny, Jack, Johnny, Neylan, Nick, Sadie and Zeke, among many more. Mattie is the first to turn 18, and therefore has the initial shot at contact with 5114, her brothers and sisters waiting in the wings. After an hour spent learning everyone’s backstory, we, too, eagerly anticipate the results of that outreach. These are real people with a lot at stake, emotionally, and the documentary does not disappoint in terms of intimate access to their high and lows.
Still, there remain a lot of unanswered questions that linger. How did that first group of siblings find out about the others? Is that standard procedure to release such information? My own sister and her wife each had one biological child from the same sperm donor, and the only reason they eventually discovered who their children’s siblings were was because of a medical issue that everyone in that gene pool needed to know about. I’m also curious about the audio recording of the father. Is it also common to make that available? None of this makes the film less powerful, though it does distract. Overall, Future People engages, throughout, telling a moving drama only made possible in recent times.