Though most fictional movies are not trying to be documentaries, there’s a desire we crave for authenticity in characters, storytelling and habits. To make a truly “authentic” movie about a woman suffering from a disease or disability might not be much of a movie at all. People grow old and sick, and those affected try to adapt and move on.
“Still Alice” tells the story of a woman struggling with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and it’s a modest movie without the added frills or melodramatic hooks of adversity, romance or history that attempt to turn a story about disability into a more traditional narrative. In that way, “Still Alice”, along with Julianne Moore’s impeccable performance, feels like the most authentic movie about Alzheimer’s yet.
So many disability movies involve characters that are defined by their disabilities. Watching “The Theory of Everything,” you’d be fooled into believing that all Stephen Hawking did in his life was have Lou Gehrig’s disease. And for the bulk of “Still Alice”, that’s all Alice Howland (Moore) is: a 50-year-old woman with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t delve deep into her past or explore her life outside of her family, but what Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film does is tell the story of a woman who fears losing herself, both physically and symbolically. Alzheimer’s is just a means to that end.
Alice is a renowned professor of communication at Columbia College, and her life’s work of research is also her life. She’s a woman who thrives on her intellect and her family, and that seems to be enough. She goes running on campus and uses practically made-up words like “Hadj” to win at her Words With Friends obsession.
Alice’s very first mental slip-ups are so miniscule that you could miss them; her family certainly does. After one run on campus, the world around her turns into a blur, the camera spinning dizzily around Alice’s head. Moore’s breathing gets heavy, and the fear that Alice has no idea where she is sinks in.
In one very economical scene, Alice visits a neurologist and goes under a quick evaluation. In a static shot captivated with Moore’s plain, confident work, the camera never breaks, and we never see the doctor’s face. Such a long look seems to put our minds at ease, but it doesn’t stop Alice from testing herself in creative ways, writing words on a chalkboard to see if she can remember them minutes later, or posing questions to herself in notes on her phone.
When the news is confirmed, Alice’s bigger fear is passing the disease on to her children. Her oldest Anna (Kate Bosworth) is successful, married and about to have kids. Her middle son Tom (Hunter Parrish) is just through medical school. And her youngest Lydia (Kristen Stewart) has skipped college and is working to be an actress in L.A.
The whole family is intimate, conversational, understanding, and the movie focuses in on the pain Alice is feeling by making it clear how her disease impacts the life choices of those closest to her.
“I wish I had cancer,” Alice says in plainly cynical terms. With cancer, people understand. But with something like Alzheimer’s, it changes you, and it changes how people perceive you, she believes. “Still Alice” isn’t about the fight to beat the disease, but about how Alice maintains her resourcefulness, intuition and in turn her identity even as her condition worsens, be it in wetting herself because she can’t remember where the bathroom is, or in blindly reading Lydia’s private diary without realizing what it contains.
Why “Still Alice” must be valued above all is that it’s a movie with a middle-aged woman at its core who is experiencing challenges, hardship and emotional peril like a relatable human being. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and Moore proves to be a revelation, an every woman symbol when there are so few others in the movies. She can be witty, droll and confident but can also fall to pieces in an instant. And her work matches the tonal modesty of the film. Free of clear delineations of time, she goes through a slow, but radical physical transformation and feels convincing at every stage. And in a long career, it’s not a stretch to say this is possibly Moore’s best work.
There’s a sense that “Still Alice” could go further. The directors hint at tension between Anna and Lydia that if explored further could’ve complicated the family’s decision about what to do with their mother. And both daughters are served with devastating news as a result of their mother’s diagnosis, but the degree to which their lives change goes unexplored.
Further, compared to a film like Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her”, “Still Alice” lacks a romantic angle that could help elevate it in terms of cinematic storytelling. But what remains is hardly the shell of a movie, a character or a person; it’s still Alice.
3 ½ stars