Still Alice, a film by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, tells of a professor at Columbia University named Alice Howland, who at the age of 50 is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and fights to preserve her memory and awareness for as long as she can, while her family—her husband and three adult children, deal with their difficult feelings. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, and the description sounds like it could be a standard disease movie tearjerker, something you might see on the Hallmark Channel. But it’s much better than that, for several reasons, the most important being that Alice is played by Julianne Moore, for which she deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar this year.
The screenplay wisely focuses on Alice’s own experience. Of course, the way her family deals with the crisis is portrayed, with Alec Baldwin as the husband, holding back his feelings much of the time, Hunter Parrish as the son who feels helpless, and Kate Bosworth as the older daughter, a controlling personality who reacts with understandable distress and fear (she’s trying to have a baby, and it turns out that Alice’s illness is genetic). But the brilliance of the film is in letting us experience, through the main character’s eyes, the feeling of gradually losing one’s memory, one’s sense of self with the history that anchors us in our personal life, and the panic and confusion of that experience. Moore’s performance starts with a bright, happy and driven professional woman and gradually evolves through each phase of her mind’s debilitation. Even the subtle changes in her facial expressions speak to us of the supreme effort she has to make to stay present. It is her own awareness of all this from the inside that she succeeds in showing us, allowing us to imagine living this struggle and the grief of knowing everything that you will lose. Yet, as the title hints to us, there is always a person there—the precious inner self lives on, even when we can no longer communicate it to others.
Another important element is the supporting work of Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s younger daughter Lydia. She’s the one who’s had the most issues with Mom—she’s moved to the west coast to be an actress, and we see her bristle when her mother, on a visit before the diagnosis, tries to cajole her into going to college for the umpteenth time. And tellingly, it’s this child who is able to relate to Alice most directly as her symptoms get worse. Stewart and Moore are very fine together here.
The film respects the messiness and the failures that occur in life—this is not one of those triumph of the spirit movies, but in a way it is, with a realistic sense of human fragility. I said before that this wasn’t your usual tearjerker, but it will probably rip your heart out just the same. After seeing Still Alice, I was struck with a sense of wonder and gratitude for the little things that I sometimes take for granted in my own life.