Still Alice (dir. Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland)

Posted: March 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Still Alice” is a wrenching, powerful film that had me either on the verge of crying, or just plain crying for most of its running time.  Movies like to show us disaster and danger from external sources, be it the destructive evil plots of supervillains in comic book movies, or the blade of a machete wielding slash movie villain, but “Still Alice” shows us something far scarier: the unstoppable internal destruction of our mind, our memories, our personality, and who we are.  With all due respect to those of you who believe in a “soul”, as human beings all we are is our brains and the chemical and electrical impulses that make us a person.  A disease like Alzheimer’s destroys who we are without having the kindness to kill us first.  This film does a remarkable and excellent job of showing us a little bit about what that’s like to the person with the disease, and the loved ones around them.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Alice Howland, a Columbia University Linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at only 50 years of age.  The Oscar is well deserved, as Moore is given the difficulty of playing a character at different stages of the disease and, while the character may be miles different in the first scene of the film and the last scene, the transition from scene to scene can be at times infinitesimal. When you know that most films are not shot in chronological order, you’ll know having to play a character that can be in a very different mental state from scene to scene is extremely difficult.  There is not a single scene in this film where Moore doesn’t come across as 100% her character, or 100% accurate.  She deserves every accolade she has received for this film and then some.

Centering a film on a relatively young, intelligent, and very attractive character brings the crushing horrendousness of the disease home to an audience in the way that featuring your stereotypical Alzheimer’s sufferer (i.e. very old already) would not.  We expect, rightly or wrongly, the old to suffer from some mental acuity loss as they get older, so Alzheimer’s in them can sometimes just read to us as the worst case of a case they’ll all get in some way, shape, or form.  When we see it strike a woman who could very well still have a lot of time and good work ahead of her, and who looks very good for her age, adds a level of tragedy and sadness that just simply wouldn’t be there to an audience with no personal experience with the disease if the average Alzheimer’s story were being told.  Some may call this choice of story manipulative for that reason, but the film never comes across like it’s trying hard for your tears, sadness, or potentially your activism.  It simply tries to show what would, and often does, happen when this relatively rare but all-too-real disease hits.

It’s one thing for a disease to effect you, but the type of Alzheimer’s that effects Alice in the film is genetic, which means her kids had a 50% chance of inheriting the gene, and if they got it, they are 100% guaranteed to develop Alzheimer’s.  Imagine learning that you have this disease that will destroy your memories and your personhood, but also the extra insult that you may have condemned your children to the same fate.  Alice has three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), who is undergoing IVF to try to have children of her own; Tom (Hunter Parrish) who comes across as something of a playboy but is otherwise a successful surgeon; and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who lives 3,000 miles away in LA trying her hand at becoming an actress.  That this film actually coaxes a good performance out of Stewart should tell you how good this film is.  Along with her children, we see how his wife’s disease affects Alice’s husband, John (Alec Baldwin).  John is a medical researcher who loves his wife, but experiences the realistic frustrations and sadness that one would when their loved one becomes someone other than who they once were.  He often throws himself into work, as much to keep them in good finances for his wife’s car as it is to escape facing his ever-deteriorating wife.  One scene, where John and a very-far-gone Alice get frozen yogurt is particularly powerful and crushing that even thinking about the scene as I type this brings the beginnings of tears to my eyes.

This film shows the transition of the disease very well.  We see as it starts innocuously enough, forgetting a word or mistaking a reference in conversation to your sister rather than your daughter.  It then progresses to losing track of time, forgetting plans or a recipe, and even forgetting you met someone that you just met mere minutes ago.  Later, you’re asking questions you just asked seconds ago, or forgetting where the bathroom is in your own house.  The short term memory trips, then falls, and the long term memory goes after that.  It’s all very gradual, and then sudden.  The film doesn’t keep us rigorously anchored in time, but the progression of the disease feels real and we, as an audience, don’t feel lost or catapulted too fast through the progression (the film itself doesn’t take place over a period much longer than maybe 2 years or so).

There’s not much else I can say about the film without spoiling specific scenes, which I do not want to do as it will blunt the power of them if you choose to see it yourself, which I strongly recommend you do.  This is a film that will make you appreciate your loved ones even more when you walk out of it, and appreciate the time that you do have, even more so than a film about, say, terminal cancer would.  A film about cancer merely makes you fear death, but to me, and my guess is more than few of you, a disease like Alzheimer’s is a fate worse than death.

I’m sure there are some of you who simply do not want to see a film that will make you feel sad, or cry.  For those of you that are not scared off by that, who see the value in a cathartic experience given by a film of excellent quality, this is a film you should make an effort to see.  The writer/directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, do a great job of keeping the film framed in tight or medium shots so that we’re always oriented on the characters, as this is first and foremost a story about people.  I have not seen either of the men’s previous work before, but this film makes me want to go back and check out their filmography up to this point.

“Still Alice” is based on a novel that was originally self-published by its author, Lisa Genova, who is also a neuroscientist.  If the book is half as good as the film, and history usually tell us the book will be better, she should be credited for showing us that not all self-published novels are garbage, and there are some diamonds in the rough.

I wish I had waited to make my top films of 2014 list, as “Still Alice” would have rightly deserved a place near the top of it.  Few films I see are as emotionally powerful as this one. A.

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