One of the cruelest ironies of Alzheimer’s disease is how aware its sufferers are of their fate. As the memory begins to erode—slowly at first, like waves pulling sand back to the sea, then all at once like a tsunami—the victim remains present in body yet unreachably distant in mind. They are there and not there—visible to their loved ones (who are also victims) but invisible to themselves. Based on a best-selling 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, grapples with this maddeningly ruthless affliction with remarkable compassion and grace. It’s not the first film to do so—in recent years Iris, The Notebook, and Away From Her, to name just a few, have all dealt with dementia with varying degrees of sensitivity and schmaltz. But even though Glatzer and Westmoreland’s film occasionally flirts with three-hankie, disease-of-the-week Lifetime-network clichés, it mostly rises above them thanks to a pair of stunning performances. One that’s pretty much expected, the other less so.
Julianne Moore stars as Alice Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor who’s stricken with an early-onset form of Alzheimer’s at the shockingly young age of 50. As the film opens, we see her celebrating her birthday with her adoring husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart). The family of Manhattanites appears perfect, as if they all just hailed a cab from Woody Allen land. But because we know going in what the film is about, we can’t help scrutinizing Alice’s behavior for telltale displays of forgetfulness. Moore is too nuanced an actress, too immune to artifice, to tip her hand so obviously. Instead, she gradually reveals small hints of her inevitable decline. First, she loses her train of thought while giving a lecture. Then she gets lost while jogging. The former could pass for the sort of ”senior moment” all of us experience when we can’t remember where we left the car keys or whether we turned off the oven. But the latter is an undeniably seismic episode of white-knuckle terror. And Moore, whose face slackens into an expression of faraway confusion, strips the moment of melodrama and makes us feel the sheer panic of someone whose brain is beginning to flicker away.
Going on 20 years now, Moore is someone who’s been so reliably good for so long that we’ve probably taken her for granted. But her subtle, heartbreaking decline as Alice—from her initial diagnosis to her daily struggle to hold on to her identity and dignity to her eventual disappearance in plain sight—is among her most devastating performances. More surprising is just how terrific Kristen Stewart is as her youngest child, Lydia. As Alice’s mind grows dimmer by the day, her marriage begins to show signs of stress. But she also manages to grow closer to Lydia, an aspiring actress who has always been the child she was the hardest on. Stewart, who in many of her previous films has seemed to turn her rebellious moodiness into a bit of a default pose, delivers a vulnerability and empathy we haven’t seen from her before. Late in the film, as Lydia rehearses a scene for an upcoming audition with her barely there mother, trying to make a connection before it’s too late, she asks Alice if she knows what the scene is about. Moore’s face is expressionless, a blank. Then you notice that somewhere behind her glassy eyes, a thought is fighting to get out. She manages to say one word: ”Love.” For that brief moment—and it may be the last—she’s still Alice. B+