“I wish I had cancer,” Julianne Moore’s Alice Howland states in Still Alice, soon after receiving a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She’s rapidly forgetting simple words and getting lost in places she once knew so well. Not only is she terrified of losing the memories that made her who she is, she’s ashamed of the seeming lack of weight to her newfound disease. With a disease like cancer, Alice says, people have things they feel like they can do to help, with fundraisers and wristbands, but with Alzheimer’s, people don’t know what to do as they watch the ones they love fall apart. Alice almost wishes there was more, and in a similar way, Still Alice feels like it needs more weight to it, especially considering the lengths gone to by recent heart-wrenching films of similar subject matter like Michael Haneke’s Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her.
Alice Howland is a well-respected professor at Columbia University, having literally written the book on linguistics. Soon after her fiftieth birthday, Alice starts have bouts of disorientation, which quickly increase in frequency. It starts off as simply forgetting a word here and there, then her usual jog becomes frightening as she gets lost on her own campus. After a visit to a neurologist, she is given a diagnosis of a rare type of familial Alzheimer’s disease, one that has a 50/50 change of being passed on genetically to her children.
As her disease becomes more pronounced, the core relationships in her life change drastically. Her oldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), who tried her best to be her mother’s favorite, grows distant at the thought of the possibility she might inherit. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), attempts to continue his life as a successful doctor, while trying to deal with his wife quickly deteriorating. Her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), has had problems with her mother’s insistence on college in the past, despite loving her current attempts to become an actress, yet stands up for her mother in this time where she desperately needs the understanding.
Still Alice lives or dies by Moore’s performance and as is usual with the talented actress, she imbues the character and the script with life in a way that few other actors could. Moore is incredible as we watch parts of her memory wither away as she grabs after them with a doomed fervor. Alice is in a losing battle, yet she’s going to fight all the way to the end. As the film progresses, Moore’s face expresses her pain and distress more plainly than any dialogue could. Alice says this disease is hell, and Moore’s performance makes you believe it.
Despite the strength of Moore’s performance, Still Alice rarely shows us how this affects those around her. When we do get these glimpses, they provide some of the most touching scenes in the entire film. For example, Bosworth is used as little more than an example as to the huge levels of change that such a disease can cause, whereas Tom—Alice’s only son, played by Hunter Parrish—barely serves any role besides the occasional show of support.
Still, there are some moments between Alice and those closest to her that deliver the emotional punch one hopes for. Baldwin’s John is doing his his best to do what is right for his family and his wife, even when it goes against her wishes. Given her past roles—and the jokes about her in those roles, it’s would be tempting to assume Stewart’s turn as Lydia would be full of mope and angst. Instead, Stewart delivers a performance as strong in its own way as Moore’s. Lydia is helpful without being condescending, doing what is best for her family and showing a level of compassion towards her mother that at times is staggeringly beautiful. Stewart demonstrates a range that, frankly, has always been there, and the result is one of the most understated roles of the year.
Co-writers and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are minimalistic with their camera, often just allowing it to just capture Moore’s performance and do little else. The duo seems to understand the film rarely needs much more than that. Glatzer and Westmoreland know the effect a debilitating disease like this can have—Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 prior to adapting the novel by Lisa Genova from which this movie is adapted and novel of the same name, and Glatzer had to speak to Westmoreland through an iPad app during filming. These two clearly have a connection with the material and want to show the unflinching reality of what such a disease can do to a person and the ones around them.
Still Alice is a fine vehicle for Moore’s well-known talents, and serves as quite the revelation of Stewart’s own ability for those too distracted by sparkly vampires and tabloid frenzy to have paid attention before now. Even if there are some films out there that deliver the same messages (on the same affliction) a bit better, that does not mean it’s not a message worth repeating.
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Writer: Lisa Genova (novel); Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland (screenplay)
Starring: Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Alec Baldwin, Seth Gilliam, Kristen Stewart
Release Date: Jan. 16, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.