Julianne Moore gives an Oscar-winning performance
Alzheimer’s is such a heartwrenching disease to witness because you’re essentially witnessing the deterioration of a person’s self; in extreme cases, all the memories a person has cherished and all the knowledge they’ve worked to accumulate over the years evaporates into nothing and you’re left with the shell of a person. At one point in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, our titular character, played by Julianne Moore, actually states “I’d rather have cancer,” echoing what I have long told my friends when we discuss certain diseases. Cancer robs you of your health and your physical appearance, but at least most of what you’ve accumulated with your life on Earth would still be intact.
Moore plays an incomparably talented professor, who has worked tirelessly, obtaining her credentials to be one of the most revolutionary roles in linguistics, teaching at Columbia University and writing a groundbreaking novel on the field. She is a loving wife to John (Alec Howland), and a mother to her eldest Anna (Kate Bosworth), the middle son Tom (Hunter Parrish – both of whom college educated – and the outlier Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who has decided to live on her own and pursue her dreams of an actress, much to the dismay of her mother (a conflict that is displayed in a manner that leaves me with nothing but the utmost empathy). Alice, over time, notices through a series of small but disconcerting instances that she is experiencing memory loss, and decides to begin regularly seeing an neurologist.
Through only a couple of tests, the neurologist discovers that, despite Alice’s young age and positive health record, she has early onset Alzheimer’s, the rare variation of the disease that has the ability to spread through genetics. Alice is dumbfounded, but there’s little she or her family can do but watch her state deteriorate and hopefully bottom out at a level that still sees her as a functioning human being. Alice winds up quitting her job as a professor, and we witness her decline, from simple things like losing little words in conversations to getting lost in her own house, not being able to find the bathroom.
Still Alice is a frightening film; as a teenager who is experiencing the inevitable in watching his parents age and move onto being senior-citizens, as well as just losing a grandparent, it’s painful to watch such affecting and realistic depictions of such a crippling illness. However, with all the films concerning cancer, cancer treatment, and the effects the illness has on people and families, remarkably few films have put Alzheimer’s under a magnifying glass and showed the agony that entails with its diagnosis and eventual progression.
Thankfully, the writing and directing team of Glatzer and Westmoreland are up to the challenge, and they are grateful to have Moore under their belt as somebody who can bring life to such a disease. Moore effectively communicates a vibrant, passionate personality early on in the film, and makes a slow and gradual turn for the worse, as in the later scenes, where her facial expressions effectively communicate that there is nothing going on in Alice’s head in a frighteningly human manner. Her gradual progression, and depiction in general, is consistently natural and never over-the-top; the agony she communicates shows deep frustration with herself and something she cannot control, again, in a manner that displays the two most crippling human conflicts of all, which are the conflict with one’s self and the inevitable.
Glatzer and Westmoreland also don’t allow for basic emotional manipulation to take place during the course of the film. Never does cutesy music chime in, nor montages inserted to trivialize or simplify Alice’s struggle. The most impacting, emotionally-moving scenes exist in fragments or one liners, with one of the strongest coming in a pair of scenes concerning Alice’s lost phone. The fact that the writing/directing duo could make such an impact possible shows their delicate craft and their ability to avoid common pitfalls and cliches by taking an alternate route to gain access to the audience’s emotions, especially for such an underexplored topic.
Still Alice isn’t an incredible film, as it’s still a drama that is a bit too direct in its depictions and still a hair too cutesy, especially in its conclusion. However, make no mistake, this is still an important film with a great performance at its center. Unlike with Black or White, where I stated we, the audience, kind of had to settle with the marginal demonization of some of the black characters in the film but still needed to say that we, as a collective whole, wanted films about interracial relationships and family conflicts, Still Alice isn’t a film to settle for, but a film to embrace and then discuss afterwards.