There is a scene early on in Still Alice where Julianne Moore’s Columbia University professor Dr. Alice Howland is giving a speech on linguistics to a group of college students and she forgets what she’s saying mid-sentence. There is a pause and Alice snaps back with a self-deprecating comment, “I knew I shouldn’t have had that champagne!” to the audience’s laughter. It’s a carefully observed moment. The irony isn’t lost on her and definitely not on us.
Before I go any further, all cards on the table; my father-in-law is suffering from early on-set Alzheimer’s and while that will obviously color my review it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, guide it. It’s given me an understanding and a place of reference that’s more than academic or simply seeing it portrayed in other films. By an even more direct token, husband directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (of the fantastic Quinceañera) have a personal angle as Glatzer suffers from ALS, an equally degenerative disease.
Based on the novel by neurologist Lisa Genova, Still Alice chronicles the degeneration of a noted scholar, a woman whose occupation is a world of words, after she receives a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The scene of this reveal is quite something; while the doctor is speaking we’re held tight on Moore’s face, watching every reaction, every thought rush through her mind in that moment. It’s extraordinary to watch one of our greatest actresses find nuances and subtlety in a moment like this. Julianne Moore gives an astonishing, Oscar-worthy performance, one of her finest ever. There almost aren’t enough superlatives to describe Moore here; genuine, effortless, extraordinary, graceful. What she imbues to Alice is like a culmination of a career.
This is an intimate film, even inverted. That’s largely because we’re getting a POV of the main character, not the people around her. That’s a significant distinction and change from how we’ve seen this disease represented before. Alice also keeps the news from her children for as long as she can as she and husband John (a wonderful Alec Baldwin) in order to figure out how to best deal with it and to avoid holiday gloom, as it will likely be her last cogent one. Alice’s approach is predictably logical and academic. She tests her memory with kitchen chalkboard flash cards, giving herself a timer to remember them. She sets quizzes on her phone asking the names of her children. When it’s discovered that hers is genetic and could be passed on to her children she has to tell them.
Of her three children, prickly lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth), quiet Tom, a doctor (Hunter Parrish) and brash Lydia, a struggling actress (played by Kristen Stewart, who is superb here), it’s Lydia whom Alice comes to rely on the most, even though she’s 3,000 miles away. Despite Lydia never living up to Alice’s expectations (“you could be so much more”), the two are kindred spirits in their resolve, in their sense of self. Alice and Lydia clash in classic mother/daughter ways but not in a generic way. They’re both outsiders in their own family now. Lydia knows her struggle to be a working actor is real, she has no agent, she takes money from her father to fund a play to have work. But she’s 100% secure in her path. Alice is no different, except her path has a horizon in sight. Thankfully the story never devolves into a ‘I need to do this-and-that before I die’ diatribe.
Still Alice is filled with outstanding performances and there are moments as gut-wrenching and harrowing as anything I’ve seen. When visiting Anna in the hospital after she’s just given birth, Alice asks to hold the baby, if it’s “ok.” There is a pause and her son-on-law asks, “Is that a good idea?” Pain, regret, fear, anger and sadness all wash down Alice’s face in an instant and all with the most careful and steely resolve. Alice doesn’t want to be a burden, doesn’t want to be perceived as weak or dangerous and doesn’t want to let her family see that either. But none more heartbreaking than when Alice, at her most lucid, makes a video for future Alice, an Alice far beyond repair, detailing how to commit suicide by pills while no one is home. As a viewer you are helpless to stop what is happening, just like as a family member you are helpless to stop the disease.
But don’t think that means this story is an ultimately depressing tale, it’s not. When John decides to take a job in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic and Lydia moves to New York to become her mother’s full-time caregiver (a nearly impossible job for a single family member), there is a bond made deeper. A scene near the end of the film has Stewart reading some of Harper’s dialogue from ‘Angels in America’ that is so pure, so appropriate and so what this story is about. It’s a story of self, of identity and even of hope.
The film begins an Oscar qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles on December 5th and then opens in limited release mid-January.