I recall being a young boy growing up with spina bifida, a birth defect that led to death or severe disability for 95% of those born with it the year that I was born.
I recall trying to learn how to walk. I recall failing.
I recall struggling with the way that my hydrocephalic brain worked and wondering if I really had the potential to learn.
I recall searching for the meaning of it all, but finding none.
I recall not knowing if I was still Richard, if I still mattered, and if I still had a purpose on the Earth.
Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a Columbia University linguistics professor married to John (Alec Baldwin), a research physician, and parent to Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Tom (Hunter Parrish). Dr. Howland is a woman who prides herself on her command of language and whose ability to embrace big ideas has made her a big success in the academic world.
She does not expect to come face-to-face with something even bigger than herself.
Of course, we know this is what happens. Alice is arriving at her 50th birthday already showing glimpses of what we know is to come in the very near future. She is forgetting her children's names, at least momentarily "spacing out" on how to spell even the simple and familiar words and, in one particularly haunting and telling scene, she finds herself devastatingly lost while out on a oft-repeated and familiar run.
Still Alice, based upon a 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, is written and directed with heartbreaking intimacy and honesty by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. It is not the kind of film you will necessarily find yourself "wanting" to see, but it is the kind of film that you should see and need to see and will likely find yourself identifying with on some level if you've ever cared for a loved one and watched someone you care about live out their journey with a life and mind-altering health condition.
Alice, in case you are unaware, is diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Even if you have never experienced Alzheimer's Disease in your own life, you have an idea of what this will mean for Alice and her family.
There are several scenes from Still Alice that I simply cannot forget, but having seen Still Alice I find myself grateful for being unable to forget them. From the jarring and disorienting running scene to the playing of Scrabble, Still Alice prefers to capture the devastatingly minute details of the life journey with Alzheimer's. There is perhaps no greater scene, no scene more reflecting Julianne Moore's astounding performance, than a scene in which Moore's Alice discovers a video file on her laptop. This scene, featuring Moore's decompensating Alice coming face-to-face with an early and recently diagnosed Alice, will, if you've ever been face-to-face with Alzheimer's, leave you absolutely sobbing.
Julianne Moore has been so good for so long that it is easy to forget the kind of understated and disciplined performances she serves up time and time again. A five-time Oscar nominee, Moore's win this year should be the closest the Academy has to a sure thing this year. Witherspoon? It's a piffle compared to this performance. Rosamund Pike? Not a chance. Felicity Jones? Nope. In fact, only Marion Cotillard has served up a leading actress performance worthy of being mentioned alongside Moore's. This year's Oscar award for Best Actress simply must go to Julianne Moore for a performance that accomplishes what is truly the over-arching mission of this film - to remind us that through it all this is Still Alice.
Alec Baldwin, who has played the fussy old codger so often that we sometimes forget his dramatic range, gives a nicely tuned and disciplined performance as the grieving yet patient John, while Bosworth shines as the eldest and most high-strung of the daughters. For years, I have admittedly picked on Kristen Stewart for her tendency toward monotone performances. Stewart far exceeds our highest expectations here with a performance that is lovely and intimate and revealing with a level of vulnerability Stewart has always possessed but never shown us on the big screen.
Ilan Eshkeri's original score is occasionally tad histrionic, though Denis Lenoir's intimate and revealing lensing captures all the right visual notes despite the film's occasional, and fortunately brief, forays into disease-of-the-week storytelling.
Much should be made of the fact that Still Alice co-director Richard Glatzer is himself living with ALS, a disease that while different from Alzheimer's is similar in its often devastating impact on those who live with it. Does this add an intimacy and insight to the film? There's no question that Still Alice is the best film yet from Glatzer/Westmoreland, but if anything it simply adds to the film's honest and authentic radiance and affirmation that love makes a difference wherever our life journey takes us.
Still Alice won't be the easiest film that you will see this year, but it is worthy of your time and emotional investment. With beautiful performances and an important story to tell, Still Alice will remind you that whether your battles in life are with chronic illness, devastating trauma, or simply the need to overcome that who you are remains the same.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic