Still Alice (2014)

My grandfather passed away nearly two years ago after battling Parkinson’s Disease for many years.  It was a disease that subtly hemmed his life in more and more around him; starting with hand tremors and slowly but surely taking more and more individual ability away from him until he was a prisoner in his own body toward the end.  It was difficult to see him go through that, and at times it was difficult to know how to handle seeing someone I loved so much go through that.

I found myself thinking of my grandfather and fighting back tears at the end of Still Alice.  Julianne Moore’s Alice does not have Parkinson’s; rather, she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Even though the diseases were different, the experiences and emotions it provoked in me were not dissimilar from what I experienced with my grandfather’s fight with Parkinson’s, seeing the world get smaller and smaller as the disease progresses.

Dr. Alice Howard is a distinguished professor of linguistics who lives and teaches New York City with her husband Dr. John Howard (Alec Baldwin), who is also distinguished in his field of work.  Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, genetically inherited from her father whom she did not know well.  The progression of the disease impacts her job and tests her family, her two daughters (Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth) and a son.  The film follows Alice’s story over a broad period of time as she struggles to cling to who she was as the disease takes more and more away from her.

There is a lot to like here.  Julianne Moore gives a terrific performance in a role for which she just won the Oscar.  There are no histrionics or big dramatic, self-aware moments from the film in how Alice deals with the disease.  The directors of the film, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, trust the material and the talent of the actress to not oversell what Alice is going through.  Nothing about her experience really rings false.  There are clear warning signs to the audience that something is amiss, but that’s unavoidable knowing that this is a film about Alzheimer’s.  Aside from a speech she gives about living with Alzheimer’s, there is no real standout scene for Moore, no moment that you can point to and say, “That right there is an Oscar moment.”  Even the speech is not a classic movie moment or anything.  This is just another strong performance in a career of strong performances and it all fell into place for her.  I was pleasantly surprised by how understated and not showy her performance was.

The supporting cast is mostly good.  Kristen Stewart gives the best supporting performance here as Alice’s daughter Lydia, an aspiring but struggling actress.  She and her mother do not see eye to eye on her dreams, and it is hinted at that it has produced larger disagreements than we are shown here.  That is itself an accomplishment of the film; it makes you feel like there is a shared history between these characters. Baldwin’s John clearly struggles with how to care for his wife at times.  The film portrays them as real equals that are both supportive of the other.  Both of them are accomplished in their professions and equally driven in their work and clearly have a happy, if busy marriage.  Because of this, as her disease progresses, you feel the imbalance in their relationship as she diminishes.  Bosworth, sadly, is given little more than a one-note character to deal with, and the son is barely drawn in at all.  The key relationship is between Alice and Lydia as the film progresses.

The film does a good job of visually portraying her experience.  At one point, Alice goes for a run and when she stops to catch her breath she quietly panics because she does not recognize where she is.  This is conveyed to the viewer through everything around her being fuzzy and out of focus.  And as the film progresses, you do feel Alice’s world get smaller and smaller.

The story hints at a truly controversial moment, where Alice has left a video instruction for herself on her laptop in the event she can no longer answer basic questions she has set up for herself on her phone, and leads her right up to the precipice but then, to potentially tragic effect, backs her away from it.

If there are any other flaws with the movie, aside from a few characters being underdeveloped, it is the randomness of time.  It is hard to tell how much time lapses over the course of the film’s runtime.  This could be an attempt to convey the head space that Alice is in, but there is one particularly jarring time jump to a summer-house in the middle of the film.  Also, the scene when she gives a speech to a group of people dealing with Alzheimer’s feels at one moment like it will play out in a certain way that a lesser film would have happen, and all of the factors are there, but it turns out to be a false alarm and everything is fine.  It just seemed odd to hint at that to begin with.

Not everybody has had first-hand experience when it comes to seeing a loved one deal with Alzheimer’s, but most people have experienced having someone deal with debilitating condition or disease.  Because of this, Still Alice is not an easy film to sit through at times because it will manipulate the viewer’s emotions, as it did mine.  If this is unearned, it is a problem; thankfully, that was not the case with this movie.  It earns most of its manipulation.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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