The dying of the light
Still Alice , drama, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
We all have our list of “hardest movies to watch” — Love Story , Terms of Endearment , Steel Magnolias , Dead Poets Society , Old Yeller , and Brian’s Song come to mind. Well, get ready to add Still Alice — Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel — to that roster.
The film begins with Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a renowned author and professor of linguistics at Columbia, celebrating her fiftieth birthday with her family. Not long afterward, Alice is in the middle of a lecture when she can’t remember the word “lexicon.” She blames the lapse on the champagne she drank the night before, but you can see deeper concern on her face. Then, as she’s jogging through campus, she becomes disoriented and panicked. A visit to the neurologist isn’t far behind.
Because we know what this film is about — that Alice will be diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s is not a spoiler — even these opening scenes have a sense of dread. We spend the rest of its duration waiting for the other shoe to drop. The timeline is fuzzy (perhaps intentionally so), but in a horrifyingly short amount of time, intelligent, articulate, capable Alice plunges into a world of confusion and fear, and her family endures the cruel and absurd conditions of the disease’s progression with her. At first she struggles to play Words With Friends, but eventually, she can’t remember her children’s names or where the bathroom is in the family beach house.
Moore won a Golden Globe for this performance, is nominated for an Oscar, and deserves every accolade that comes her way. It’s fascinating to watch her, an artist fully in control, play a woman who is rapidly losing control. She tackles the role with amazing, often wordless, subtlety. Facial expressions show her confusion, concern, and fear — and, as her condition worsens, the contours of her face almost seem to change and her eyes lose their sparkle.
Many of the supporting parts feel sketchy, though. We never learn why Alice’s older daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), is so tightly wound, abrupt, judgmental, and harsh. Alice’s husband, John (Alec Baldwin), initially comes across as loving, optimistic, and supportive but ultimately prioritizes his professional life over care for Alice, and we never understand what brought about that shift. The exception is Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Alice’s younger daughter, an aspiring actress who skipped college, moved to L.A., and has an uneasy relationship with her intellectual mother but reveals herself to be the one who cares most deeply about her. Stewart takes yet another giant step away from the Twilight franchise with her deep, resonant, heartfelt performance.
Moore and Stewart carry the film, which without them can feel predictable, on-the-nose (the gloppily emotional music, clips from grainy home movies), and a little too neat. Then again, the filmmakers decided to continue with this project even after Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS — another frightening, debilitating disease. Given that, it’s hard to fault them too much for wanting to paint as pretty and touching a picture as possible.
Doctor who: Julianne Moore