Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang
Rare performances transcend acting; we cease being aware of the celebrity star, or the idiosyncrasies of craft and talent, and instead unreservedly accept the character being portrayed.
Such is the case with Julianne Moore’s riveting, persuasive and heartbreaking work in Still Alice, directed and scripted by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2009 debut novel of the same title. Calling the film a vital document of our time seems both pretentious and insufficient, and yet the label is accurate; thoughtful, gracefully constructed dramas of this nature do more to enhance the national (perhaps global?) consciousness than a wealth of news stories or TV documentaries.
And if Moore wins the Academy Award for Best Actress — which she certainly deserves — then this little indie film may get the additional exposure that it also deserves.
She stars here as Alice Howland, a respected university linguistics professor who enjoys a loving and comfortable life with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin). They’re at the peak of their respective careers, and have raised three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Life seems ideal.
And then, gradually, Alice realizes that she’s misplacing things to a degree that feels somewhere north of “normal.”
Her mild concern erupts into full-blown terror when, during a routine morning jog across campus, she suddenly doesn’t know where she is, and has no idea where she’s going.
She immediately seeks medical consultation; the eventual diagnosis is Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Knowing full well what that involves, Alice faces the certainty of slowly losing all her memories and perception: everything revolving around her professional work, and ultimately even the basic recognition of best friends and family members.
What follows is not easy to watch, to say the least. Glatzer and Westmoreland carefully (and wisely) eschew any sort of “movie-making” technique, preferring instead to depict Alice’s increasing disorientation in a quiet, cinema-verité manner that is shattering, even as she fights heroically to salvage ever-smaller pieces of herself.
The title is significant, because it speaks to this struggle: More than anything else, Alice wants her family, friends and colleagues to understand that she’s still herself. But there can be no last-minute reprieves: no deus ex machina medical miracles that will pull her back from the brink. Although Glatzer and Westmoreland conclude their film with what could be termed one of Alice’s “last best days,” we understand what is to come.
As directors, Glatzer and Westmoreland enjoy the verisimilitude of long takes, a challenge to which Moore rises with impressive depth and sensitivity. Alice’s initial session with a neurotherapist is just such a sequence: The camera holds entirely on her face, cinematographer Denis Lenoir moving in oh-so-slowly, as she responds to questions and comments posed by the doctor who remains out of view.
(When we do finally see him, in later scenes, Stephen Kunken delivers a perfectly shaded performance as the sympathetic specialist.)
Moore is by turns wary and worried, feisty and funny; Alice had feared a brain tumor, and so initially this seems a better diagnosis ... until the implications sink in, at which point Moore’s gaze snaps into silent, deer-in-the-headlights panic. But at the same time, we recognize that Alice already is warring with herself, determined to meet this enemy on the battlefield of her own choosing.
At least, for as long as she can.
The disturbing degree to which Alice plans ahead reaches its unsettling apogee with the clever “escape clause” that she prepares for herself. Meanwhile, though, she gamely embraces the necessary drug regimen and embarks on a daily routine of short-term memory tests, determined to delay the inevitable as much as possible.
And we cringe, each time, as a word fails to reach her lips ... and Moore pauses, smiles briefly and stares into space, waiting for the term or name to arrive. And then her expression falters, as too much time passes, and she understands that verbal salvation isn’t coming.
Alice is a psychology professor in Genova’s book; Glatzer and Westmoreland’s modest change here, by making her a linguist, grants their story a much more perceivable “hook” to their heroine’s increasing mental impairment. And while Alzheimer’s obviously is an indiscriminate disease that strikes across social and professional strata, it feels particularly tragic to watch this happen to a woman who has built a career on knowing just the right words at all times.
We’ve all forgotten names, phone numbers, addresses; we recognize the symptoms, shrug and laugh them off, because it’s a momentary lapse.
Except when it isn’t, and – as viewers, watching this film — we come to dread any situation that requires Alice to speak to any lengthy degree.
(As nervous human beings, we’ll likely view any future verbal lapses — for awhile, at least — with a level of irrational apprehension that’ll be recognized by hypochondriacs.)
Moore’s subtly powerful work dominates this film; the very pleasant surprise is that Stewart delivers a fine performance of her own. (Yes, apparently, Kristen Stewart really can act.) Lydia, as the youngest Howland child, is viewed — particularly by her condescending older sister — as a slacker unwilling to get any sort of real job. Unlike her siblings, who have remained close to the family roots, Lydia has moved to the West Coast in pursuit of an acting career.
It doesn’t take long to suspect that she has done this as much to escape everybody else’s worried (Alice and John) or downright dismissive (Anna and Tom) attitudes. Yes, there’s a trace of self-defensive petulance in Lydia’s contributions to any family discussion, but Stewart shades it just so; her character isn’t defined solely by something like the yawning chasm of a generation gap. She simply marches to the beat of a different drummer, and wishes that her parents and siblings would respect that.
Besides which, as she occasionally suggests — far too quietly, but then Lydia has all but abandoned her quest for credibility — she really might be good at acting. So why not find out?
No surprise, as well, that Lydia’s more accepting temperament gradually transforms her into Alice’s most important confidant and companion. Watch for a third-act stroll that Glatzer and Westmoreland once again construct as a lengthy single take: a mother/daughter heart-to-heart that becomes achingly poignant.
Pay attention, as well, to the depth of emotion that Stewart projects, even as the tiny Skype image on her mother’s laptop, during their online chats.
Baldwin enters this story as the ideal husband: caring, helpful and devoted. The latter quality never flags, but John’s ability to cope with the situation begins to fray, Baldwin persuasively conveying the anguish of a man who can’t help succumbing to the fear that he’ll wake one morning, lying next to a woman who no longer recognizes him as her husband. Anxiety and shame begin to manifest on Baldwin’s face, as John realizes that he may not be up to what comes next.
Bosworth is less successful as Anna, who emerges as little more than a self-centered, one-dimensional shrew. (When and why would she have become so catty?) Her husband — Shane McRae, as Charlie — seems willing to go along with this attitude, leaving us no illusions as to why Lydia fled across the entire country.
Parrish’s Tom is entirely superfluous to this story. It’s not the actor’s fault; the character simply is under-developed. We get that he’s a workaholic like his father, based on one dinnertime conversation, and that’s all we ever learn about Tom. Given the care with which Glatzer and Westmoreland have constructed their narrative tapestry, this is a glaring oversight.
The filmmaking duo made media waves back in 2006, when their marvelous little drama Quinceañera took that year’s Sundance Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. Seven years passed before their next feature, the little-seen Last of Robin Hood, which depicted the final days of legendary Hollywood star Errol Flynn, as viewed by Beverly Aadland, the teen starlet who became his final girlfriend.
The opportunity to make Still Alice proved timely, as it came mere months after Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS: a personal challenge that undoubtedly contributed to the sensitivity with which this film has been made. As Westmoreland observes, in the production notes, “both diseases eat away at the sense of identity, and make it vitally important to hang on to yourself.”
Moore eloquently conveys that heroic struggle in this mesmerizing, albeit melancholy drama. This film is laden with moments, and entire scenes, that will linger long after the lights come up, long after you’ve returned home. I’ve no idea if Glatzer and Westmoreland deliberately set out to make some quiet advocacy cinema; regardless, they’ve certainly succeeded.