“Still Alice” is not an easy film to watch, but it is a movie well worth seeing.
Julianne Moore plays Alice, an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Round about her 50th birthday, Alice starts to notice little memory lapses — forgetting a recipe or getting lost on a routine jog around campus. After a few tests by her neurologist, the hard truth becomes evident.
Then the news gets worse. Alice’s disease turns out to be familial, putting her three children at risk. Her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) tests negative, but daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) turns up positive, a marked setback considering she and her husband are trying to have a baby.
Alice’s third child, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), refuses to be tested. She’s an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles, and the push and pull relationship between Alice and Lydia ties the film together. Alice loves her daughter but disapproves of Lydia’s decision to skip college and pin her hopes on the stage.
The mother-daughter dynamic is mirrored by Alice’s relationship with her husband, John, played by Alec Baldwin. Like Alice, John is a successful professor. When he gets an invitation to take a position at the Mayo Clinic, a complicated situation just gets worse.
“Still Alice” may have a fairly linear plot, marking the painful decline of Alice’s worsening condition, but its singular purpose makes it easier to measure the different issues the story wrestles with along the way. The audience is forced to reckon with the idea of lost memory and how best to respect others who may be dealing with it. While still in the early stages of her disease, Alice is forced to consider some drastic decisions after a trip to a care facility gives her an unfiltered look at her future.
Moore has garnered an Oscar nomination for her performance as Alice, and someone will really have to impress in order to beat her out for the statue. Her slow devolution from intellectual giant to the sad humility of her weakened state is marvelously effective and heartbreaking to watch. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s are never easy to witness, but they are especially stark when they manifest in someone so young.
Stewart does a solid job with a conflicted role, balancing her testy relationship with her mother against the sympathy she feels for her condition. At times you wish Baldwin would warm up a little, but his standoffish, slow-to-engage behavior may be more accurate than we’d care to admit.
Based on the book by Lisa Genova, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland maintain a steady tone, using mostly straightforward shooting and warm colors to let the emotions of the film come through with more subtlety than bravado. Alice may have lived an impressive life in terms of worldly success, but “Still Alice” is more interested in the intimacy of her experience. Moore communicates that well.
“Still Alice” is a sobering film, but it isn’t a complete downer. In fact, the steady descent of the plot just makes its periodic high points that much more enjoyable. Sometimes when the grandiose things are taken away, it’s that much easier to appreciate the simple things.
“Still Alice” is rated PG-13 for profanity, including a single use of the F-word, and some other mild adult content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.