Still Alice tries its very hardest to get Alzheimer’s right, which it does sometimes. Other times it steps wrong, or perhaps fails to see where the step is. How do I know this? My grandmother is pushing 90, has been a widow for 10 years and has had Alzheimer’s for pretty much all of them. She’s reached that stage now where faces are thin air, words are not words, and even something as simple as getting up from a chair is an activity strange and incomprehensible.
There is a moment of this in Still Alice, perhaps the movie’s truest scene, when Alice Howland visits a home for Alzheimer’s patients and remarks that she sees only women. “Nope. There’s a man right there. He was part of the team that sent the first shuttle into space”, observes the nurse. But this isn’t why the scene plays true. It is true because as the camera sweeps the room it catches an elderly lady feeding bottled milk to a doll, and another hearing a sound and jumping up from her wheelchair in fright, mumbling gibberish, needing an attendant to pacify her. For the longest time my grandmother carried around a teddy bear, then a baby doll, and spoke to them as if they were real. Now she speaks gibberish. The movie touches truth again from time to time, but never more immediately than in this scene.
Alice is played by Julianne Moore in a performance that renders her past in soap opera obsolete. She travels through an Alzheimer’s wormhole here, degenerating quicker than normal, from intellectual linguistics professor to stuttering shell in what appears to be a year, or less (no date stamps are ever flashed; all the characters don’t age). She does it so swiftly the rest of the cast seems to drag behind her, especially Kristen Stewart (not because she acts poorly, which she doesn’t, but because her character does).
Alice is a lecturer of linguistics at Columbia. Invited to guest-speak one day, she forgets a word and blames it on “that champagne [she] had earlier”. The class has a good laugh. I too thought it was the champagne, except I didn’t and suspected immediately that the culprit was Alzheimer’s. The movie doesn’t try very hard to make it a mystery.
Before long she’s sitting across from a neurologist answering mundane memory questions, spelling “water” forwards then backwards. The MRI results come in. It’s positive. Familial Alzheimer’s disease, rare as it is, even rarer for an adult of 50. The “familial” means the gene can be passed to offspring, and if it is, the chances of it manifesting are, well, 100%. Hope is not aimed for in this film.
Alice has three children — Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Stewart) — and a husband John (Alec Baldwin), who, if I’m not mistaken, is also a lecturer at Columbia. We meet the Howland family in a simple but pristine opening scene in which all but Lydia have gathered for Alice’s birthday (Lydia is not present because she’s pursuing an acting career on the other side of the country; Anna and Tom, like the good children they are, have matured into a lawyer and a doctor).
But Still Alice is not about the children, neither is it about John. It centralises itself entirely on Alice. She used to be very intelligent. Now intelligence comes at a premium, if it comes at all. You can imagine her frustration, although the movie sometimes confuses frustration with fear. I suppose the effects of the disease differ from person to person; my grandmother was always more frustrated than fearful. She’d mix up names, forget important dates, misplace valuable items. Alice does that too, but quells her anxiety by crying. In a scene that strikes pretty close to home, she walks up to Lydia after one of her plays and says in a manner devoid of familiarity, “You were wonderful tonight. Will I be seeing you in anything else this summer?” Alzheimer’s patients recede in mental age and travel back through time, erasing newest memories first. This is why Lydia’s face is the first to go, and why Alice later mistakes Anna for her dead sister. The movie gets all this right.
The screenplay, written by the directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is based on a novel by Lisa Genova, who is a neurosurgeon. I don’t know if she has ever had to live with anyone with Alzheimer’s, which suggests she could be writing from a medical perspective instead of an emotional one. The difference is key.
Moore’s performance is also key, because she has to guide us through Alice’s ordeal and make it seem not only convincing, but plausible. Everything hinges on this relationship. What I want to know is, who is this movie for? Who will go to see it? As far as I know it is not based on a real person. People who have had to deal with Alzheimer’s don’t need a movie to tell them what they already know, and people who haven’t are better off not knowing. Still Alice grapples the effects of the disease about as well as it can, but I’m not sure its story needs to be told.
Best Moment | Any time Alice’s actions mirror my grandmother’s, as when she forgets where the toilet is and wets herself, or when she forgets who Lydia is, or when she gets angry over trivial matters (her Skype call with Lydia). They bring back sour but powerful memories.
Worst Moment | When Alice, before the disease kicks in, prepares Christmas dinner literally minutes before it’s supposed to start, already dressed for the occasion. No one I know waits till the last minute to make a Christmas feast. And usually a shower is required after cooking, before guests arrive. Small detail, but irritating.