The early scenes of Still Alice induce dread, unspooling a series of moments that are small but devastating. Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a brilliant college professor whose studies of linguistics and legacy as an instructor are matched by her tenderness as a wife and mother. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) and children love her and, due to the way Moore plays her, so do we. Her career in academia, as well as that of her husband’s, is well-established and they live a comfortable life.
Then Alice begins to forget things. At first, it’s tiny details or names, until she goes for one of her extended jogs and can’t remember where she is. We know where this is going, which is what makes the introductory scenes so hard. It’s not fun to be a step ahead of your characters when you know the one you really like has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice discovers that not only does she have the Alzheimer’s, but her age and deteriorating memory indicate that it’s a unique form of the disease.
It feels like we’re in for what’s often referred to, not lovingly, as a Disease of the Week TV movie. Co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland approach the material respectfully, staying out of the way of the actors and not making the proceedings glossy or over-stylized. Yet their unobtrusive take on the material lacks directorial flair. The sad-sack music score doesn’t help, either. The third act takes some refreshing turns and even injects some nice touches of style (in one montage, the ingredients of a frozen yogurt franchise have never looked lovelier up close).
The power of Still Alice comes from the performances and its overall message–that we need to give those suffering from Alzheimer’s our patience, empathy and, most importantly, their dignity. A key scene, in which Alice movingly gives a speech about her rapidly deteriorating condition, reflects her anger at seeming “ridiculous.” The plight of anyone suffering from memory loss is universally felt, though the film makes Alice’s condition all the more immediate since we see her life’s work, career and abilities fall away from her.
Still Alice is a sad film, but it’s so touching and beautifully acted that it transcends audience expectations of enduring a “depressing” movie (which it isn’t). Moore is a lovely, compelling and inventive actress who can push a little too hard in some roles. Here, we’re in her corner the whole way and absorbing every drop of the emotions she pours out. Moore is a striking, hard-working and superb American actress and this is one of her essential performances.
Baldwin hasn’t been this warm and reserved on screen in years, delivering an endearingly vulnerable turn that contrasts sharply with his tough guy roles. I hadn’t realized how much I missed seeing Kate Bosworth in a major role; she’s quite good and perfectly cast as Alice’s eldest daughter. The nicest surprise is Kristen Stewart, Alice’s youngest daughter, whose adaptable approach to her mother’s condition is especially moving. Stewart isn’t particularly dynamic here but she doesn’t need to be. Instead, she provides Moore with a solid acting partner and finds truth in her character by appearing natural and unguarded.
Sarah Polley’s 2006 drama Away From Her is still the best depiction of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s I’ve seen. Julie Christie’s starring role and Polley’s poetic approach to the material remain unmatched. That said, it’s limited and rather insensitive on my part to compare the two. We need more films about Alzheimer’s, and I hope these we have inspire compassion and understanding.