I managed to see Still Alice before Julianne Moore won the Oscar for the role. She very much deserved it. In fact, she elevated a standard disease-of-the-week film into something more special.
Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, based on a novel by Lisa Genova, Moore stars as Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor who, as the film begins, is starting to feel not herself. She has trouble finding words in her brain, and gets lost on familiar territory.
She seeks the help of a neurologist, who rules out a brain tumor, but instead finds she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, rare for someone her age (50). She breaks the news to her family–her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a successful doctor, her eldest daughter is a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a son is also a medical student (Hunter Parish).
It is her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart) that reacts differently. This relationship is the heart of the film. Stewart plays a wayward soul, who has gone to Los Angeles to be an actress, despite her mother’s wish that she go to college. While Bosworth, notably, dances around the issue of her mother’s illness, Stewart approaches it without sentiment and head on, asking her pointedly how it feels.
Baldwin, meanwhile, while outwardly concerned, is subtly shown as putting his career ahead of Moore’s difficulties. Late in the film, in one of Moore’s crowning scenes in the film, she gives a speech to the Alzheimer’s Association, talking about living with the disease. Baldwin can’t make it because he has “business in Minnesota,” which we will later learn is an offer from the Mayo Clinic that will cause problems in the marriage.
The film is very smart about how a devastating disease can roil a family, especially one like this, which is genetic. But I was kind of annoyed by one thing–did it have to be another film about an absurdly rich family, who has a beach house and a Manhattan townhouse? Moore, even as a professor of linguistics, wouldn’t make that much money. At no time is finance or health insurance an issue.
I’d also like to comment on Kristen Stewart. This is a nice role for her as she seeks to put Twilight behind her. But she still acts like she is holding something back, with that little catch in her voice and her lower lip thrust forward. In the film she acts a scene for Chekhov’s Three Sisters and she still has that pouty approach. She needs to play a part in which nothing is held back. I suggest she’d play Puck.
But this is Moore’s show. Of course, as we see in Oscar history, playing someone with a disease or disability gets you awards. This year we had Alzheimer’s and ALS take the top prizes. But she does give the role a shading that is missing in most films of this sort. In one scene she looks at a video of her lucid self, and I’d swear it was two different women. In a sense, it was.
My grade for Still Alice: B.