The dy­ing of the light

Still Alice , drama, rated PG-13, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - — Lau­rel Glad­den

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

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