Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is an extremely smart woman. At 50, she is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University. She thrives on her work and her intellect; Alice considers both an essential part of her personality and self-worth. She thus becomes horrified when she suddenly starts forgetting words, words she should know, like lexicon. After getting completely lost jogging around the university neighborhood she knows so well, Alice visits a neurologist and discovers she is living with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Not only is Alice a career woman, she has a picture-perfect family: a loving husband, research physician John (Alec Baldwin), who is equally ambitious; a son in medical school, Tom (Hunter Parrish); and two daughters, Anna and Lydia (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart). Anna is married and a successful lawyer. Lydia, on the other hand, lives in Los Angeles struggling to become an actress. Alice’s relationship with Lydia is at the heart of the film as she urges her daughter to find a more stable career. Lydia, though, becomes the family member most sympathetic to Alice’s illness.
The entire family is shocked by her diagnosis, understandably. Alice has familial Alzheimer’s, inherited from her parents. This affects Alice’s children as well; they have a 50 percent chance of inheriting it themselves. With genetic testing, they have the choice of finding out if they’re affected, and it’s interesting to see how each handles this news, especially Anna, who wants to have children herself. John, on the other hand, is compassionate, though clearly having a hard time watching his wife lose her bearings, but he throws himself into his work, rather than into her care.
It’s heartbreaking to watch, as Julianne Moore does an incredible job depicting the slow evolution of the disease. Moore, nominated for a slew of awards, including an Oscar, for this role, is incredibly daring. Directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera) pace the film deliberately, showing all stages of Alice’s decline. They do a wonderful job depicting her disorientation throughout, through the repetition of dialogue and blurred camera movements from Alice’s point of view. What begins as a few forgetful moments slowly becomes full dementia, and it’s tough to watch, from Alice struggling through an academic presentation to her forgetting her children’s names. The actress captures so well the frustrations and the temporary triumphs of dealing with such a devastating illness.
Still Alice, at times, feels a bit like a PSA, though that’s not entirely a bad thing, since the drama clearly doesn’t want to sugarcoat the disease. It also shines a light on how technology helps (or deters) memory. Alice plays Words with Friends on her iPhone with Anna, uses Skype to stay in touch with Lydia, and uses her phone to remind her of little things, such as where she lives. Eventually, however, even technology can’t help Alice keep in touch with the world around her.
Though Moore is clearly the powerhouse behind the drama, the supporting cast is commanding, though their roles may be as fully written. It’s intriguing to watch how each family member reacts to Alice’s illness and how it changes him or her emotionally and physically. This may be one of Kristen Stewart’s best roles, as a daughter who knows she disappoints her mother, but is the only family member with the emotional capacity to handle her mother’s descent. I can’t say Still Alice is terribly uplifting, but it is certainly powerful.