Portland filmmaker Katie Prentiss likens the loss of her mother to a “slow goodbye,” as frontotemporal dementia caused her personality, lucidity and memory to fade at a gradual, uncertain clip.
And though Margaret Katherine Branson passed away in 2016 at age 69, her long farewell extends and transforms through Prentiss’ new film, Front Porches, as well as through the paragraphs of personal experience Prentiss regularly fields from the film’s online donors and viewers who want to share similar losses.
“Grief has a way of putting us in a club nobody wants to be in,” says Prentiss, whose directorial debut took home Best Oregon Film at this month’s Oregon Short Film Festival. “You look around the room and nobody wants to be here, but I’m glad I’m not here alone.”
Inspired by Prentiss’ caretaking experiences, Front Porches depicts a friendship between two Southeast Portland neighbors. Maggie (Prentiss) is an overwhelmed and underseen mother aching for fulfillment amid the burdens of pandemic parenthood, while her neighbor Barb (Jill Sughrue) is a de facto family member whose own son is estranged. As Barb slips into awareness lapses and delusions, Front Porches isn’t so much a medical drama as a snapshot of a support network splintering and warping.
“It was very important to me to highlight the early stages of dementia because it’s often the most confusing for people,” Prentiss says. “There is a period of time where [family members] don’t know what’s happening.”
That said, the film deliberately eludes a literal mother-daughter relationship to showcase the kind of “re-parenting” Prentiss observes as a hallmark of her friendships with women. In contrast to the film’s distant husbands and sons, Maggie and Barb open themselves up to both intimacy and neglect as caretakers.
“I think it’s profoundly isolating,” Prentiss says of looking after someone with a terminal illness. “I had young kids at home, and you don’t expect to be caring for your parents. It’s really easy to lose yourself.”
Prentiss producing, directing, co-writing and starring in Front Porches encapsulates her belated, headlong plunge into film in her 40s. Viewing acting as little more than an attempted “bucket list” cross-off, she auditioned for a small role in the acclaimed Portland indie feature Sophie Jones in 2018. Nabbing that part ignited a new era for the mother of four and 14-year owner-operator of Katie Prentiss Photography. In the ensuing years, she studied acting at Portland’s Scott Rogers Studios at night after work, performed in a half-dozen projects from Oregon shorts to Columbia Sportswear commercials, started forming a production company, and garnered a TikTok following of more than 90,000.
“I think of myself as a late bloomer,” Prentiss says. “I don’t feel like I have time to waste. There’s an abundance of actors and less than an abundance of roles, especially for women, especially as women age.”
And though portrait photography gave her filmmaking career a head start when it comes to finding the sun dapples of Front Porches’ intimate cinematography and collaborating with subjects to reveal themselves, it’s the vulnerability of acting that Prentiss finds intoxicating. What’s more, embracing a career pivot is the exact kind of risk she says will make her a better actor.
“It’s the thrill of knowing I could do this the rest of my life and still have room to grow that makes me feel so alive,” she explains. “Knowing that the richer life I lead, the richer my acting will be is so cool.”
After winning five awards at October’s IndieX Film Fest, Front Porches will continue its festival run into next year and screen virtually for AARP and Alzheimer’s Association members in February. Prentiss hopes the film can continue creating space for conversations about dementia and the specifics of other families’ “slow goodbyes.”
“With boomers getting older, we’re going to have more and more people that have mental health issues like this,” she says. “I hope they continue research. I just don’t feel like people should have to die from Alzheimer’s or dementia.”