Still Alice

I can't imagine anything more frightening than being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. There's no such thing as an easy terminal illness, but to face a terminal illness that strips you of your memories, your personality and everything else that defines who you are? How is it possible that such a nightmarish thing even exists? It's an alarmingly common disease, and many of us have witnessed its effects. The first time I met my wife's grandmother, she was a bright, friendly, intelligent woman. Then she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and each time I saw her, she had lost something else. She was confused, and then she was mean, and then she was obsessed with repeating a single phrase on an endless loop, and then she was silent.

The thing I admire about Still Alice is that it isn't merely recreating familiar horrors. Its perspective is an internal one rather than an external one: we aren't watching a woman suffer, we are suffering with her. This is the story of a person, not the story of a disease, and that's what sets it apart from a host of similarly-themed made-for-TV dramas.

When we first meet Alice (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights), she seems like a perfectly ordinary woman making the sort of simple mistakes we all make from time to time. A word suddenly escapes her, or she'll absent-mindedly forget about an event she was supposed to attend, or she can't remember the name of that play her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) is starring in. Still, these little moments eventually start adding up, and Alice decides to see a neurologist... just to be safe. When she receives her Alzheimer's diagnosis, her initial reaction is disbelief. Isn't she too young for Alzheimer's? Younger than average, certainly, but the diagnosis is real.

We all know about the horrifying later stages of Alzheimer's, but Still Alice effectively makes the case that the earlier stages can be even worse. For one thing, the patient is still fully capable of processing what's happening and of what the future holds. It's a hard truth to live with. There's a chilling scene in which Alice walks through an assisted living home, getting an ominous preview of what life has in store for her. She makes secret plans to take her own life before she reaches that point (a decision that ultimately leads to one of the film's most difficult scenes).

Moore's Oscar-winning performance is an effectively heart-wrenching (and yes, unsettling) piece of work, as she slowly transitions from a bright, articulate woman into someone who can hardly express a coherent thought at all. Alice fades so gradually that you don't really notice how bad things have gotten until a scene in the third act shows a piece of video footage from the first act. Moore has a gift for handling big scenes without ever letting them turn into phony histrionics, and she's a major part of why the film rarely feels needlessly manipulative.

Though a handful of scenes feel a little conventional (an inspirational speech Moore gives late in the film seems to have been included to prevent audiences from feeling too gloomy), Still Alice generally does an admirable job of avoiding medical drama cliches. Alice's husband John (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) initially seems like a familiar type – immediately after Alice receives her diagnosis, he's perpetually studying things on the laptop. We assume that he's on the same futile path as so many cinematic spouses; searching in vain for some sort of cure. No. John is just burying himself in his work, unable to fully confront the emotional reality of his situation. The more severe Alice's condition becomes, the more he looks away. Alice's oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth, Beyond the Sea) develops a tendency to ignore her mother. Why bother speaking if her words will be forgotten? The disease is dehumanizing enough on its own, but Alice's loved ones amplify the effect.

The exception is Lydia, who has both the empathetic clarity Anna lacks and the willingness to confront reality John lacks. The scenes between Moore and Stewart are among the film's best; a portrait of a mother and daughter attempting to maintain a connection through the fog of memory loss. Stewart is an actress who gets more interesting with each passing year, and has some wonderfully subtle moments in which she attempts to navigate a series of emotional minefields. In one scene, Alice mistakes Lydia's journal for a different book entirely and reads it. Lydia is initially angry, but then apologizes: “I was upset because you weren't respecting my privacy, but then I realized I don't want you to.” Alice is unable to remember what they were arguing about in the first place.

This isn't an easy film to watch, though it actually spares viewers an examination of the disease's awful final stages. It confronts us with the fact that Alzheimer's patients are still human beings, no matter how much of themselves they may lose along the way. If we forget that, we risk transforming a merciless disease into something even more cruel. I hope that I am never diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but if I am, I hope I have someone like Lydia in my life. I hope that my family members are never diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but if there are, I hope I have Lydia's strength.

Still Alice

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2014