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TIFF 2014: ‘Still Alice’ values performances above all else

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Still Alice
Written for the screen and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
USA, 2014

Based on a popular novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a weepy portrait of a linguistic professor, Dr. Alice Howland, battling early onset Alzheimer’s shortly after turning 50-years-old. Boasting a cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and the always electric Julianne Moore, above all else this is a film that leans on strong performances. This is not a film about script, ideas, or even direction; it is about the intimacy of faces and the passion of performers.

Still Alice falls into the ‘social problem’ genre, exploring the crippling and devastating effects that Alzheimer’s has. As North American society grows older, we have been told that Alzheimer’s will increasingly be a medical issue that needs to be addressed. Much like cancer, nearly everyone is touched one way or another by its effects, with either friends or family being affected by its degenerative effects. Still Alice takes on a very rare incarnation of the disease, which is hereditary, fast acting and targets younger people. The effect emphasizes the degenerative quality of Alzheimer’s, as we watch a vibrant, charming and intelligent woman lose herself at a rather alarming rate.

The film covers a rather wide scope of time, utilizing time markers such as personal milestones, evolving pregnancies and changing seasons to signify the months passing. This is done with a certain amount of grace but is never really able to overcome the pitfalls that come with this narrative choice. This undercuts the film’s intimacy in particular, when that is by far its greatest strength. Subtle shifts in behavior or attitudes are traded in for grand ones, a choice that emphasizes change rather than transition. While this is perhaps essential for bringing the narrative from Point A to Point C, it undercuts the value of the actors’ performances.

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This is, above all else, a film that thrives on acting. Julianne Moore is without a doubt one of the most adventurous and compelling actresses of contemporary film. By contrast to some of her most recent choices in films like Map to the Stars (2014) and Carrie (2013), this film is by association much safer and more obviously geared to a wider audience. That is not meant to discount either the film or the performance, it is just that the film appeals to a more superficial level of exploring character. For better or for worse, Still Alice explores the deterioration of Alzheimer’s on a relatively young person and not much else. Moore excels in the role, and balances between stoicism and humour, before succumbing increasingly to confusion and loss.

Moore’s best screen partner in the film is without a doubt Kristen Stewart, who gives one of the strongest performances of her career. While she is in the model of a rebellious teen, Stewart manages through tone and gaze to suggest a world of conflict and contradiction in even the most simple lines. This all works towards a powerful, if not overtly poetic final scene between the two actors. Yet, in spite of this standing out as the film’s biggest strength, it can hardly compare to the intimacy that Sarah Polley manages to achieve with Away from Her (2006), which also tackles early onset Alzheimer’s. While Polley similarly creates a film that values performance above nearly all else, narrowing down the relationship to two people and foisting far more difficult choices onto the characters contributes to a far richer film.

While this film hits on many details of coping with Alzheimer’s disease, it is not searching to take a particularly in-depth look. The film is choosing emotional resonance over approaching the subject with any nuance or critique. While it is not necessarily fair to rewrite a film as a critic, it does leave something to be desired that the film chooses an affluent and stable family, when in reality most families face far more difficult questions when searching for care for a family member with Alzheimer’s. Finances play a much bigger role than the film lets on, and the reality is that most people can’t afford care at home or at a private facility. This is perhaps not the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but merely watching a woman fade away does not necessarily make for great or particularly interesting cinema.

— Justine Smith

Visit the official website of the Toronto International Film Festival.


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