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“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.”

7/10

 

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Chris Evangelista is the Executive Editor of Cut Print Film & co-host of the Cut Print Film Podcast. He also contributes to /Film, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 and view his portfolio at chrisevangelista.net

  • beammeup

    As a close family member of a person who suffers from the same disease, I can only say, that is the point. There is nothing more. It is a one way journey and no one gets any benefit from it. If there is another story, perhaps it is Lydia’s recognition of the value of her parent in her life and her demonstrating that recognition through new-found empathy and maturity.

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  • DrMomLovesLife

    I would say, that from a medical standpoint, some of the pieces that don’t make sense to you DO make sense to me. The fact that Alice’s mother and sister were both killed in a car accident when Alice was young, means that if either of them were genetically predisposed to have Early-Onset Alzheimer’s, they did not live long enough for it to appear (whether or not symptoms of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s in Alice’s mother could have been partly to blame for the accident isn’t clear). In a disease where genetics play such a strong role, the absence of the ‘early warning’ that seeing similarly aged or older family members go through this brings, makes Alice’s diagnosis that much more surprising.

    Also, the fact that Alice’s husband, a physician, and son, a medical student, both have difficulty dealing with the disease, is not so surprising. Many physicians, after dealing with the near-constant push to treat, heal, or cure disease, have difficulty accepting when a family member has a disease for which they is no good treatment, or hope for a cure. For them, distancing themselves from the person can be a form of self-preservation, if they are unable to accept their own relative helplessness.

    I admit that I write this having only read the book, as I have not yet had the opportunity to see the movie. I can say, however, that the clips that I HAVE seen thus far, have been powerful enough to even affect my clinical practice. For that, and for the spotlight that this movie draws to Alzheimer’s disease, I am incredibly thankful.

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  • 88cje

    Chris: I guess you missed hearing that Still Alice is unique because it is from Alice’s point of view and not her family. You’re used to seeing movies about how families deal with the victim’s condition/disease. We observe as they interact and discuss how to handle it but we never really know what it feels like from the victim’s POV. Obviously there’s no one in your life struggling with alzheimers because “emotion” is present all the time…with them and those of us who love and care for them.