Still Alice (2014) – Movie Review

Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Richard Glatzner and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a fifty-year-old Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. A strong and brilliant woman, whose identity has been strengthened by the roles she has played in life, is forced to create a new one based on the only reality she knows – the present moment. While Moore’s understated yet powerful performance which has earned her a much-deserved Oscar nomination, convincingly conveys the tragedy of someone losing their identity, she never lets us forget who she really is behind her growing incapacitation.

After suffering seemingly random memory losses such as forgetting a word or two during her lectures, Alice is shaken when she becomes disoriented on a jog through campus, a terrain that she knows very well. When she fails to recognize her son Tom’s (Hunter Parrish), girlfriend at a dinner party, she seeks an opinion from neurologist Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken). Ruling out a brain tumor, he performs tests that confirm the diagnosis of a rare early-onset dementia for which the medical profession has no answer. The hardest blow is finding out that there is a genetic component to her illness and the disease may be passed on to one or more of her children.

Unable to continue as a University professor, Alice must confront the reality of her memory slipping away. She begins forgetting names, is unable to find items that have been misplaced, and cannot perform ordinary tasks without assistance. Glatzner (who himself has been diagnosed with ALS) and Westmoreland do not manipulate us into feeling pity for Alice as a victim but allow us to feel what Alice is feeling and see the world through her eyes. The stresses and strains on her family are telling. Alice asks husband John (Alec Baldwin), a biologist, to take a year off from work while she can still function but he has been offered an important job with the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and must make a difficult choice.

The film tracks Alice’s steady decline as she struggles to maintain perspective. With the encouragement of her doctor, she speaks to the Annual Dementia Care Conference telling them, “I am not what I say or what I do or what I remember. I am fundamentally more than that . . . I am not suffering. I am struggling.” She is aware of society’s attitude towards the disease and at one point, notes that she would rather have cancer – at least then people would be more understanding. In one of the most intense scenes in the film, Alice tries to follow suicide instructions she left for herself on her laptop at an earlier time, but even that becomes too much for her.

Though there are no distracting sub-plots, the supporting characters feel oddly one-dimensional. While John moves from outright denial to support, it always feels reluctant and there is no sense of emotional commitment. Neither Anna (Kate Bosworth), an expectant mother nor Tom comes alive as real human beings going through their own personal struggle. The opposite is true, however, for Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Alice’s youngest daughter. Lydia’s personal growth from being a self-centered, rebellious young woman who cannot think beyond her own immediate needs to a mature individual, willing to give of herself in an act of love is one of the emotional centers of the film. Though Still Alice is sad, it is not depressing and the integrity of the directors together with Moore’s superb performance lift the film from being another melodrama to that of a genuine and heartfelt experience.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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