by Jordan Canahai
In Still Alice, a renowned Columbia linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s, makes a brave attempt to hold onto her memory, but then is rendered defenseless as the disease rips apart her life. The film makes zero attempt to sugarcoat the awful affects of Alzheimer’s, both to the victim and to the victim’s family, who are present for the heart-wrenching process of watching their loved one slip away. Adapting Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestseller, writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film proves a fine showcase for Moore to give another superlative lead performance as the brilliant professor whose stunning intellect is painfully turned against her. Joining her in the struggle is her equally successful husband (Alec Baldwin) and their three grown children, two of them established professionals (Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish), and the youngest (Kristen Stewart) a hopeful actress.
When the first signs of Alzheimer’s appear they are brushed off as typical middle-age forgetfulness, but as her condition worsens Alice must devise ingenious methods to help her function, while concealing the speed of her deterioration from others and from herself. Perhaps most painful of all, she is confronted by the awful possibility that her strain of Alzheimer’s may have passed to one of her children, an aspect of the film that hit particularly close to home for me. A close friend recently confided to me her fears that her own mother may soon struggle with Alzheimer’s just as her grandmother had. I did my best to offer words of comfort, but could sense the same anxiety and sadness in her that the characters in Still Alice wrestle with.
As alluded to before, the relationship between the progression of Alice’s disease and her methods for coping with it is the most heartbreaking element of the film, because it speaks to her brilliance at problem-solving and its utter uselessness in stemming the progression of the disease. Moore handles the role beautifully, emphasizing Alice’s smarts, warmth, and human dignity as they unravel against her will. Stewart is also every bit as good as the outcast daughter who grows closer to her mother as she must take on greater responsibilities. Her performance is likely to go unsung which is unfortunate as it’s probably her best work to date.
There seems to exist a built in three act structure for movies in which protagonists, whether ordinary or extraordinary, must battle disease; how they react to the onset of symptoms and diagnosis, how they struggle to cope, and finally how they accept their fate. As such it is on the filmmakers to offer keen insight to viewers along the way, and that’s where Still Alice suffers slightly. Co-director Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, and to his credit he and his collaborators tackle the material directly and sincerely. However, they also rely too much on sentimentality, while avoiding commentary on the upper class family’s wealth and privilege. Still Alice works as drama, though it suffers in comparison to other films about the disease like Sarah Polley’s Away From Her and Michael Haneke’s Amour. This is a moving picture to be sure, but a disappointingly familiar one.
Watch the trailer for Still Alice
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