Every viewer has a place where a movie can get to him. There is no point in being objective about this; Alzheimer’s disease and its destructive cruelty occupies a large part of my psyche and represents a terror and hatred that I struggle to deal with. It’s hard to say, then, if Still Alice (2014), which shows the excruciating ordeal of a woman who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, is effectively rendered or if it simply can pierce my personal armor. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter; the movie is certainly effectively rendered enough to have pierced my armor in a real and profound way and that experience is the only material I have on which to base my opinion.
Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is an accomplished linguistics professor and has just turned 50, celebrating with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and three children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Soon after, she finds herself forgetting things in disturbing ways. She can’t place a word, she forgets a lesson, she finds herself lost on her favorite running route. She goes to a neurologist and he conducts a memory test and she passes. She’s hasn’t had a stroke, she shows no signs of other defects and, at 50, she’s still quite young. Still, the doctor wants to run another test, one that finds genetic Alzheimer’s. Each of her three children has a 50 percent chance of having the terrible chimera inside of them. Much of Still Alice exists to create scenes like these. Terrible realities of a miserable disease that robs people of their most precious possessions then denies them even the dignity to realize it. We watch Alice get worse: Her brilliance comes in spurts then not at all; her family does tries to help, becomes frustrated and can only watch their loved one fade from view. It tells a specific story about real people but anyone with any experience with Alzheimer’s misery will recognize most of the beats.
In one sense this makes the movie a maudlin and manipulative exorcise , collecting only the low-hanging fruit of any empathetic viewer. Can a movie deserve praise for being heartbreaking if its subject is inherently heartbreaking? In another sense, however, Still Alice provides a service for its honest and direct treatment and its commitment to the dignity of the stricken. If nothing else, it puts all its eggs in Julianne Moore’s basket, whose nuanced and powerful turn rewards that faith. Here we see her fear and frustration, anger and anxiety, and then, more suddenly than we are prepared for, the light goes out. The most remarkable part of the performance is that the light doesn’t go out completely; we never lose Alice entirely but we can’t help but add a mental question mark to the end of the movie’s title.
It is a discredit to Alzheimer’s disease that the movie, while gutting and excruciating, never achieves the full well of heartache that the actual disease can pour out. It is a credit to the filmmakers that I’m not sure that was the objective. The movie must be taken to task a little for not really adding anything to any conversation, as most viewers would be aware that Alzheimer’s is a destructive and insidious disease; nor does the movie really tackle the idea of how much the condition can take from Alice before she is no longer truly herself. Further, there’s a cold politeness here, the movie is all too ready to pull punches right before the going gets too rough, an aspect I must be simultaneously critical of and thankful for. But the movie is distinguished by its empathetic humanism. On its top-level survey of the condition, the movie gives us a family of types and the viewer spends some time reacting to the disease through each of their eyes. John is a doctor himself and a dominating personality; he wants to micromanage Alice’s deterioration. Toward the end, he takes a job that requires him to move under the guise that it’s a great opportunity, but Alice can recognize that it’s because he wants to see as little of the worst of it as he can. This may seem careless and insensitive but which of us would want a front row ticket to the dissolution of the person we love the most?
The children react in their own ways. The disease brings Alice and Lydia together (she finds that she possesses the gene that will blossom into Alzheimer’s as well). While never being mean-spirited, small unavoidable indignities are heaped on Alice. There are hushed discussions of her competency right in front of her, frustrations are vented, and when Anna has twins, Alice has to insist on her own ability to hold a child before she is given one of her grandchildren. Besides the keen sting of a linguist losing her ability to communicate, Alice feels extra anguish because she’s so young. It is no comfort to her that Alzheimer’s is rare at her age. When she visits a facility, the staff assumes she’s checking it out for a parent. This is the terrible mosaic the movie makes:there are victories here as well, but ultimately nothing is immune from being washed away in the tide.
Still Alice affected me deeply. It is warm and human yet brutal and devastating. It’s the kind of movie that reminds us that there are more important things than movies. When it was over, I hugged my wife.