Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
In between the camera’s isolating shift in focus, former-renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is preparing a holiday dinner when her timer goes off. She walks over to her kitchen chalkboard, removing a piece of paper that had been covering three simple words: cathode, pomegranate and trellis. Five minutes ago, she had tasked herself with memorizing each word, as she is finding her “lexicon” slowly thinning away under what is later confirmed as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Moore’s stunning portrayal of a crisis of memory loss serves as the lead for Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s 2014 drama, “Still Alice,” based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel of the same name. The film takes a look at the relationship between Alice and her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), as well as her three children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Tom (Hunter Parrish), in an ironically reversed way. As Alice’s mental condition regresses and she forgets more and more about her family, the audience becomes more acquainted with them.
Howland uses their names as well as her own birthday as trivia questions that she tests herself with every morning. Her ability to remember them determines whether she should continue her life with a deteriorating mind. Her marriage and motherhood aren’t without love, but are made harder by John’s increasing work, Lydia’s career as an actor and Anna’s pregnancy. Alice, not fascinated by the idea of reverting to a simple-minded liability to her family, has set a video for herself on her computer. In this video are strict instructions to down an entire bottle of sleeping pills in the likely event that she forgets all of the answers.
The film splendidly puts together Alice’s struggle with Alzheimer’s in small increments of artistic cinematography that Moore does very well to capture, sometimes as the only character featured on screen. The audience is never tasked with piecing together Alice’s life story by putting together fragments of memories, as one might come to expect from such films as 2004’s “The Notebook” where flashbacks are crucial to advancing a plot that deals with memory loss. The only flashbacks are home videos of Alice’s family that serve an ambiguous purpose. Many scenes feature Alice as she’s faced with losing bits of her life and illustrate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s that people usually don’t understand because they can’t relate. At times, Alice finds herself lost when she’s out jogging, unable to find the restroom, accidentally placing shampoo into her refrigerator and using a highlighter to cross out words when she is reading aloud so she doesn’t repeat them.
The ensemble cast gives heartwarming performances, forming a decent family chemistry without entirely glossing over individual characterization. Propelled by an intelligent script, together they bring completeness to both Alice’s and her family’s journey through this mental illness. Even in the film’s darkest moments, when the question arises whether or not they think Alice would want her life to continue like this, increasing in helplessness and forcing the rest of them to put their own lives to a halt to take care of her, there’s always an encouraging emotional backdrop to fall on.
Moore steals the show and earns the audience’s adoration through her careful, precise acting. From the beginning, she captures the sympathies of those around her, up to the point where she can barely utter the word “love” but still move hearts. She takes on a heavy task, treading the thin-ice topic of Alzheimer’s disease while at the same time staging a conflict between her former self and her mentally handicapped self. It is not easy to act out an almost one-woman show with a vocabulary that gets smaller and smaller as the film progresses, but nonetheless, Moore proves to be captivating and composed in doing so. She becomes a phenomenal beacon of hope for people who have suffered at the hands of mental adversity.
Anyone who has been afflicted with or knows someone with Alzheimer’s will find “Still Alice” an inspiring piece of cinema. It’s a timeless family adventure that makes the more overlooked parts of the disease known and does a gregarious job of it.