A recently released film — based on a novel by Lisa Genoa — is elevating Alzheimer’s disease to the national stage. “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore, chronicles a distinguished linguistic professor’s descent into the depths of Alzheimer’s. The film successfully captures the tragedy of the disease, and Moore’s portrayal of Alice is riveting, which largely makes up for the film’s weaknesses.
“I wish I had cancer,” Dr. Alice Howland says at one point in “Still Alice,” a line adapted from the book by author Lisa Genova. Ordinarily, such a melodramatic statement would sound like hyperbole, but in this case it’s a tragically reasonable refrain.
We meet Alice on her 50th birthday with her family, which includes two of her three adult children, a son-in-law, and her husband John (Alec Baldwin). At a posh restaurant that highlights her upper class family and life, John leads a toast to Alice, calling her “the smartest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.” Indeed, Alice, a Columbia University linguistics professor, is not just smart, but a person whose entire identity is wrapped up in her intellect, her love of commutation and academia.
Unfortunately, the first signs of trouble come early in the film. Alice has an embarrassing memory lapse while giving a lecture (ironically while discussing memory), and later becomes lost while jogging on what should be familiar territory for her on Columbia’s campus.
Concerned, she consults with a neurologist in secret, worried she has a brain tumor. Her conversations with her neurologist from that point on, not only drive the plot, but effectively educate the audience about the medical facts of Alice’s decline.
After a couple of appointments and some tests, Alice is relieved to hear from her neurologist that she doesn’t have a brain tumor. But what comes next is something she’s not braced for: a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. Not just that, but genetic testing reveals it’s a rare form of familial Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that each of her three children has a 50% chance of having a gene that will inevitably cause the disease.
We soon begin to witness Alice’s steady decline, largely from her own perspective. At first Alice is able to mask her deficits with smart phone reminders and other technical hacks, but as her illness progresses, her awareness fades.
As its title implies “Still Alice” is really Alice’s story, but we also have an opportunity to see how her husband and children cope with her disease. Her husband John appears too wrapped up in his career to be there for Alice, and is almost cruel sometimes when reacting to the symptoms of Alice’s disease. At the same time, two of her three children — a daughter who is a lawyer and a son who is in medical school, are not at all understanding when it comes to their mother’s disease, either. It’s her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a rebellious struggling actress, who demonstrates the most compassion towards Alice in the film.
One of the most effective narrative devices in “Still Alice” is the fact that Alzheimer’s disease takes from Alice what she values most: her intellect. This is why Alice’s refrain, “I wish I had cancer,” is so understandable.
“Still Alice” is a richly sad film, which is to be expected with subject matter that’s so inherently tragic. It’s a testament to the film makers that they did not try to force any type of upbeat ending. The film isn’t entirely dark though. Despite Alice’s disease, she never gives up her struggle to stay true to herself, and she delivers a triumphant speech to an Alzheimer’s Association event despite overwhelming obstacles.
“Still Alice” also does more than document decline. It keeps the audience’s eyes glued to the screen with tense moments like plot devices involving (without revealing too much) some dubious videotaped instructions that Alice has created for her future memory-impaired self to follow when her awareness is all but erased.
Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Alice carries the film, and helps to mitigate the occasional weaknesses that other reviewers have legitimately mentioned. Those weaknesses include production values that have been likened to a Lifetime channel made-for-TV movie, secondary characters that are frequently one-dimensional, and a lack of gritty realism.
Despite these weaknesses, the film works, and has been rightly embraced by Alzheimer’s advocates everywhere.
Have you had the chance to view “Still Alice?” What was your takeaway from the film? Share your review with us in the comments below.
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