To be frank: I’ve been dreading Julianne Moore’s latest, Still Alice. For months I’ve ignored press invites, finally chasing down the last possible screening before its release.* Then my brain frantically grasped for an excuse to skip it. To not see Still Alice. To not do this to myself. Why? Because having witnessed my lovely late grandfather suffer through it, Alzheimer’s disease is the thing I fear above all else. Above death. Above terrorism. Even above sharks.
As I waited for the movie to begin, I tried to stop by brain from flashing to vivid memories of my Pap in the grips of this disease that violently ripped away his mind, memory, freedom and identity. I tried to squelch the fear that the same could happen to me. Then I realized I had failed to bring a single tissue with me to the theater. This was going to be a mess.
Typically, I avoid Alzheimer-related movies because they generally fill me with rage over my Pap’s death and all the fucked up shit that preceded it. But watching Still Alice, I began to realize why I subjected myself to this with only the slightest prompting (an e-mail from Pajiba’s editors saying something like “It’d be great if somebody could review Still Alice). Because the movie aims to explore Alzheimer’s from the perspective of one of its victims, I felt I owed this to my grandfather, to understand what he went through. To her credit, Moore provides a perfect conduit for this brutal experience.
Deserving of all the buzz and the Golden Globe she’s already earned, Moore introduces Alice as a vibrant woman who’s got it all. She’s a celebrated professor, mother of three, happily married. She eats well, works out, travels, laughs. She’s white, pretty, privileged and rich. But then bit-by-bit, she’s losing. It’s grasping for a word here, and getting befuddled about where she is there. But soon comes the diagnosis that feels like a slap in the face: early on-set Alzheimer’s at fifty. From here, Moore delicately portrays Alice’s slips and attempts to rally, all the way through her unstoppable decline into a fog that will never fucking lift.
In Moore, I saw my grandfather. I saw the polite smiles that were little lies of recognition that never came. I recognized the fear of not knowing where you are, or who these strangers —who insist they belong to you—are around you. I remembered the warm smiles of accomplishment when something does come back, even if it’s briefly. And in Alice’s daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart, I saw myself.
Stewart gets a lot of flack for getting famous super fast, and for being less-than-thrilled with it. But she’s been steadily proving herself as an actress in films like Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice. Here she plays as aspiring actress and black sheep to the family made up of academics, doctors and lawyers. Lydia lives far from home, and so is often dismissed in conversations about how to deal with Alice’s worsening condition. Stewart handles these moments with the gritted teeth determination she’s known for. But where she offers something new to those dissing Twilight are in scenes where she is just trying to talk to her mother who sometimes can’t remember who she is. Her frustration in having to repeat herself again and again is childish, yet relatable. And seeing her force it away in favor of maturity and compassion is all-too-familiar.
Solid performances are also contributed from Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as the rest of Alice’s family. But the bulk of this movie is on Moore and Stewart. And the two work beautifully together to paint scenes that are heartbreaking, but never exploitative or big in the way meant to demand Oscar attention. They’re smaller, earnest and earned. Directing partners and partners-in-life Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are careful to craft a tale that refuses to pity Alice. This is about empathy, not sympathy. She begs to be treated like a person, not like she’s already gone. It’s sobering, and plays at the core of this drama that is daring but refuses to be flashy.
It feels strange to talk so nakedly about myself in this review. But I will never be able to untangle my own past and my Pap from this movie. And the thing is, I suspect many watching Still Alice will have ties similar to mine, whether it be over Alzheimer’s or some other heinous disease. They too will see a loved one in these characters. It’ll be hard and an ugly thing to relive. And I can’t imagine it’s an experience everyone will welcome.
Still Alice gives you no happy ending. It’s too grounded for that. But it does offer crisp gallows humor and a great depth of humanity that makes its message more bearable. It’s a movie that is intimate and simply told. But that’s all it needs. A few details here and there, and sadly we can fill in the gaps of loss and love.
*H/t to the Museum of The Moving Image.