In the end, our bodies betray us. Most aren’t fortunate enough to go out on their own terms, but some are dealt a crueler fate than others. While most films treat Alzheimer’s disease with overwrought melodrama and naïveté, Still Alice stares unflinchingly into the abyss. Bolstered by a haunting performance from Julianne Moore and the focused storytelling of filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, this film has the raw power to simultaneously crush and rejuvenate your spirit. Painful, required viewing for life’s brutal training ground.
The power of film is that, unlike real life, it allows us to see the beginning of the end. For Dr. Alice Howland (Moore), her precipitous decline begins with a harmless memory gaffe at her 50th birthday party. Alice, a heralded linguistics researcher at Columbia University, is the model of self-control. She wields language like a scalpel, carefully carving every word, every anecdote, to communicate complicated ideas to scholars and laypeople, alike. Her intelligence is superseded only by her ambition. She has it all; rewarding career, loving family, and the hard-earned respect of her colleagues. When she gets disoriented on a routine jog around campus, however, Alice knows there’s something more sinister in play than absentmindedness.
The diagnosis of familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is devastating, not only to Alice, but to her children, who may carry the genes for this rare form of dementia. Her oldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), and only son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), handle the news largely in stride, though Still Alice affords little time to explore their stories. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), himself an esteemed biomedical researcher, can’t escape his intellect long enough to shoulder any of Alice’s emotional carnage. Of more help is her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who bounces between theater companies in a slapdash attempt to be an actress. Though supportive throughout, their presence is largely a footnote to Alice’s story. We remain focused on her struggle, first, as she fights to maintain her uncompromising lifestyle, and finally, her dignified acquiescence to the disease.
Hollywood has always struggled with mental illness and cognitive disease. They treat the afflicted adults like pitiful children, wandering around in Gump-like innocence, gazing in wide-eyed wonder at all the new things they are seeing for the first time (again). This idealized view of losing our most precious possession—our intellect—is infantile and offensive. Writer-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, understand the tragedy of losing everything that makes you… you. They do not infantilize Alice, or look at her as some pitiable creature. Lisa Genova’s source novel is adapted with the utmost respect, never compromising on its core objective; trying to understand what the victim is feeling.
By keeping the story focused on Alice, they avoid many of the melodramatic pitfalls that ensnare most illness dramas. There are no scenes with family members arguing or making tearful speeches to one another. In fact, Moore appears in nearly every scene, even if she isn’t fully involved in the action. Glatzer and Westmoreland keep their visual landscape sparse. In early scenes, either in the classroom or at home, Alice is a powerful figure dominating the frame. As her condition worsens, however, she fades further and further into the background. It’s a brilliant directorial decision, conveying not only her physical deterioration, but the tragic loss of social standing that defines so much of our self-worth. Alice remains socially engaged until the end, but this movie isn’t concerned with how she deals with people; it wants to know how she deals with dealing with people. It’s a subtle but powerful distinction that dooms most illness dramas to movie-of-the-week status.
The other key factor that elevates Still Alice, of course, is Julianne Moore. It’s a remarkably subdued performance from Ms. Moore, who often plays unhinged characters prone to wild emotional outbursts. Here, she fully inhabits the calculating professor. “I’ve always been so defined by my intellect,” Alice confesses. Moore takes this characterization to the extreme, portraying Alice as a person determined to use analytical reasoning as a weapon against her condition. In one heartbreaking scene, Alice records a video message to her future self about how to appropriately commit suicide. Moore becomes the picture of composure, calmly and compassionately detailing every step; always aware she is doomed, but never succumbing to the choking dread hiding just below the surface. When the payoff scene finally arrives, it destroys us, not because of the outcome, but because Alice, in despite of her superior intellect and professional knowledge, still failed to anticipate the sheer devastation of her disease. It’s a scene that will stay with you, and likely prompt you to contemplate decisions you’d rather not entertain.
And yet, at its center, Still Alice is a hopeful film. It’s a testament to the value of appreciating every memory as its own entity. Yes, we are the sum total of our experiences, but each experience can be filled with passion and recognition. There is great sadness and tragedy, but there is also a celebration of the love that binds us together on a deeply fundamental level. Still Alice doesn’t just follow one woman’s fight against the inevitable, it shows us her soul. And it is beautiful.
— J.R. Kinnard