Still Alice – Film Review

Alice poster

There’s a reason why there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, and this is it.  By the time the first signs of dementia appear it’s too late; the neurodegenerative disease has been there for years, but no one would know.  It begins with short term memory loss – little things like forgetting a name or misplacing an object; something that might initially be mistaken for a natural progression of age – then it takes on other behavioral aspects; mood swings, getting easily lost.  Worst of all, there are no treatments to reverse it.  Alzheimer’s disease usually manifests in those sixty-five or older.  This is why the Alzheimer’s patient at the center of the new drama Still Alice is somewhat different.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a middle-aged linguistics professor at Columbia.  She’s fairly wealthy and highly educated.  There appears to be no reason why Alice – an otherwise all-round healthy person – should suddenly be forgetting things; not at her age.

The first sign is inconsequential.  While at a dinner party when talking about the activities of her family, Alice casually mentions that her actor daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is currently in “Some TV thing,” but she can’t recall the name.  “Something Enemy,” she says.   It’s hardly a sign of dementia, but as we know, in a film, nothing is said nor done without reason if it doesn’t somehow have something to do with the plot.

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The second sign is of consequence.  While in front of a class discussing the issues raised in her recently published book From Neurons to Nouns, Alice forgets a word.  It stumps her.  She’s in the middle of a sentence stating, “By observing these baby steps into… er… er.”  She’s trying to say wordstock, but it doesn’t come.  All she can do is apologize with an embarrassed smile and make a joke about having drunk too much champagne the night before.

Then it gets worse.  While jogging on campus, what should look like familiar territory becomes a blur.  Alice looks around her and suddenly panics.  By having us see things from the professor’s point of view, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland shoot the moment as though everything around Alice is out of focus, though it’s not her vision that’s impaired; she simply can’t determine where she is.  It isn’t until one of the campus buildings before her suddenly takes on recognizable details that Alice realizes her location.  The confusion on her face is replaced by relief, but her intelligence tells her something else: She has a serious problem.

In a following scene with a doctor, the whole exchange is shot from one perspective.  We see Alice talking about her forgetfulness and listening to the doctor’s prognosis but we never see the doctor; we simply hear him.  The camera’s focus is on Alice alone; it never cuts away.  And even though it’s only Alice that we see, the scene is still played out from the woman’s point of view.  Presumably, because of the devastating news regarding Alzheimer’s, Alice doesn’t really see the doctor, either.  She just hears the words.

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There’s a major difference with Alice and the average patient with dementia, and it’s not simply her age.  It’s her intelligence.  Because of the character’s education, handling those early days and talking about it intelligently tends to make things initially easier to handle.  It’s not that having an education slows the process, it’s how the patient handles the symptoms and the realization of what is happening.  Many patients in later years have no clue.  Alice, on the other hand, is aware.

Still Alice is a heartbreaking film without the tears.  There are no scenes of hysterics, no tempers flair, and no high drama.  By expressions, and expressions alone, we know what’s happening with Alice.  Julianne Moore’s face changes but those expressions are never overplayed.  The panic when being lost will turn to relief when realization falls into place.  The concern of what she realizes is happening turns to worry.  Worst of all, the look of total disconnect appears when Alice is simply unaware.  She becomes a blank slate.  What makes us who we are is the sum total of our experiences and the memory of them.  Once that memory is wiped, so too is our character.  Alice’s memories are being wiped.

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As an educated person being able to talk coherently about her disease, Alice gives us the occasional insight to what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s.  “It’s like something drops out from under me,” she volunteers when trying to articulate how it feels to forget something.  “I see the words hanging in front of me, but I can’t reach them.”

Often, when the subject of dementia occurs in a story, the plot is invariably seen from the point of view of the caregiver or the family and how it affects them.  In Still Alice we get to know her family, but it’s always Alice and her point of view that matters.  Despite nicely restrained performances from Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband, plus Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart as Alice’s daughters, the center of attention is Moore.  It’s a performance of subtlety.  The look of joy on her face as tears emerge after making a speech to her peers regarding her dementia is one of great, emotional depth.  This is a turning point in her long career as illustrated with a Golden Globe Best Actress win and now an Oscar nomination.  She deserves the attention, even if the film itself wasn’t recognized.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  99 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

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