“Nothing’s lost forever.”
Near the end of Still Alice, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) reads to her mother Alice (Julianne Moore) an excerpt from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.” It is a scene so emotionally devastating and poignant that one is tempted to declare Still Alice a rousing success. But do the kudos count if the most emotional moment in the film is a result of quoting someone else’s work?
Still Alice details the life and illness of Alice Howland (Moore). Alice is a renowned linguistics professor, and words are her passion. So it’s all the more cruel when Alice begins to suddenly forget words at random. When the problem becomes too serious to shrug off, Alice goes to see her a neurologist and receives devastating news: she has Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis is a shock to both her and her husband John (Alec Baldwin). There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, of course, and the couple is forced to wait for Alice’s mind to deteriorate.
It’s a compelling set-up for a film, but the set-up is more or less all we get. Beyond the fact that Alice slowly loses cognition, there’s nothing more to Still Alice. Writers and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland instead let us sit back and witness Alice’s deterioration. At the forefront of it all is Julianne Moore, giving arguably her best performance in a career full of magnificent performances. The “suffering terminally ill hero” is the type of trope that hammy actors like to sink their teeth into with hopes of taking home awards, but Moore is so natural and so heartfelt as Alice. There’s never a false moment, never an over-the-top scene of handwringing. We don’t really get to see that much of Alice before her illness strikes, but Moore is so good that we are fully engrossed and sympathetic the second we find out she’s sick.
Moore is assisted by some excellent performances by the actors playing her family. Baldwin, as her husband, is very reserved and controlled. It’s a performance that could almost come off as cold if played a different way, but Baldwin finds the right balance–playing a man coming to terms with not just losing his wife, but also losing her mind. “You were the smartest woman I ever met,” he tells Alice, and you can hear the utter heartbreak in his voice, even though it never waivers. Kate Bosworth, as one of Alice’s daughters, is fine I guess, but she’s given less to do in the film. The real stand-out among the family members, though, is Kristen Stewart, as Alice’s daughter Lydia. A struggling actress who doesn’t get along nearly as well with her mother as her sister does, Lydia becomes the one member of the family who doesn’t seem to sugarcoat Alice’s illness. The others talk about it in hushed tones, if they even talk about it at all. Lydia asks questions about the illness that seem perfectly reasonable, but which result in scornful looks from her family. In one scene, she asks Alice what “it” feels like, and after giving her an answer, Alice says: “Thank you for asking.” Stewart’s performance is quiet, reserved, and most of all, natural. She plays off of Moore expertly.
This movie is devastating. I can’t remember the last time a film affected me in a way in which few others have, and I felt like an emotional wreck as the credits rolled. But a film shouldn’t rest on emotion alone, and one would have to be made of stone not to be at least a little affected by what’s happening here. If only there were something more to the story–something beyond “Alice is losing her memory.” Glatzer and Westmoreland adopt a few stylistic touches from time to time, such as keeping Alice in focus in the frame while everything beyond her is blurred. Most of the time, though, they adopt a standard point-and-shoot style that gives things a slightly flat feeling. Yet Moore’s performance is too powerful to deny. One scene in particular really sells the impact of what has happened to Alice: right when she was diagnosed, Alice recorded a video of herself talking to herself on her laptop. Now, her cognition all but gone, Alice watches the video on her computer. The Alice in the video seems so bright and alive and intelligent; the Alice watching is lost, almost in a childlike state.
Still Alice is a good film, but it feels as if there was a “great” film somewhere within, waiting for a better screenplay to find it. There are several items in the film that just don’t seem to fit; Alice has a son named Tom (Hunter Parrish), but he’s barely a character. Alice’s mother and sister were killed in a car accident when she was young, but this seems to have no real bearing on the proceedings. A scene where Alice gives a heartfelt speech about her illness at a conference in the middle of the film is sweet, but feels like a false “movie moment” in a movie otherwise committed to being realistic. But I can’t fault Still Alice too much–I only wish the story had been something more than just a “painful progress.”