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‘Dragonfly’ Explores Dementia

Art imitates life in female-led indie film


Some films are crafted for pure entertainment.

“Dragonfly” wasn’t.

The female-led indie drama explores the complicated relationship between a frustrated Chicago artist and her ailing mother, recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Viewers are extended a bit of insight into the cruel impacts of the illness, one which the production team saw to be a taboo among too many Americans.

The film

Anna (Greene Epstein) and her mother Claire (Jennifer Blagen) pack for her move to an assisted-living facility in “Dragonfly” 

With much prodding from her brother, 20-something Anna (Cara Greene Epstein) reluctantly returns to Minnesota to help care for their mom, Claire (Jennifer Blagen). Anna, who ekes out a living photographing weddings, moves back in with lots of emotional baggage – much of it stemming from her cold, judgmental mother. Photography is a hobby – not a career – according to a disapproving Claire.

As she confronts the past and present in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Anna eventually stumbles upon a mysterious and miniature mailbox from her childhood. She embarks on a mission to solve its mystery: who is Dragonfly, and why did he or she write 10-year-old Anna dozens of inspirational letters and leave them in her bright red mailbox?

Despite warning signs that Claire’s condition is getting worse, Anna ignores Alzheimer’s certain path. Instead, she seems more focused on finding Mr. Right or figuring out the identity of Dragonfly. She is selfish or in denial, maybe both. Anyway, Anna is probably not so different from countless unseen caregivers among the millennial generation.

Personal story

There are innumerable films about tortured young artists struggling to hit it big –  so in this arena, “Dragonfly” offers nothing new. However, the 70-minute drama does deliver one thing rather novel – a subtle depiction of dementia.

“Alzheimer’s very personally affected me with my grandmother,” director Maribeth Romslo told Life Matters Media following a Chicago screening at the Music Box Theatre. “The last thing you want to do is make it a cliche or parody. We wanted it to feel very authentic.”

Films unraveling cognitive decline have become more common in recent years, as America’s massive baby boomer population learns to grapple with it.

It is estimated that every 67 seconds, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association – a supporter of the film – nearly one in six women 65 and older will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Their decline can be slow, making the duties of their caregivers difficult and enduring.

“Dragonfly” isn’t nearly as informative or as moving as “Still Alice,” the 2014 Oscar-winning drama starring Julianne Moore. Nor is it as haunting as “Away from Her,” the 2007 film centering on a couple whose marriage is tested by dementia and transition into a nursing home.

In the low-budget, Kickstarted-funded “Dragonfly,” most scenes involving Claire’s decline show her wandering around the house or losing focus mid-sentence. Claire and her disease are treated like the “elephant in the room.” It’s a small film, but it gets the point across: caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a really tough job.

“We want it to start conversations about who has been affected,” Romslo said. “Almost everybody has in some way.”

Sometimes art imitates life.