Alice Howland is a woman of science, a Columbia University academic whose expertise is linguistics, the common ways babies learn languages as infants.
So if anybody instantly grasps the consequences of what her neurologist tells her, it’s Alice. She’s been forgetting things, having “senior moments” and bouts of disorientation. She’s smart enough to consider the possibility of a brain tumor.
But no. The doctor uses the “A-word” — Alzheimer’s, “early onset.“ A brilliant woman at the peak of her career has to, in an instant, process that and what she stands to lose. Julianne Moore, one of the best actresses to never have won an Oscar, lets us read all that on Alice’s face. There is fear, a barely controlled panic. There is grief at what she knows is coming. And there is guilt, the chance that what she’s facing could also doom the adult children who just joined her in celebrating her 50th birthday.
“Still Alice” is a melodrama about a disease, yet another screen survey of the course of the illness that robs us of our memories and, thus, our identity. What separates it from “Away from Her,” or “The Notebook,” or other films about Alzheimer’s isn’t just Moore’s performance, which is subtle, flinty yet warm. It’s the generally unsentimental approach that co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland stick to, the cool, rational decisions Alice makes while she is “Still Alice.”
Alice is a smart cookie, but she’s no saint and she’s not made of stone. She may visit a city nursing home to get a peek at her fate, may hang onto teaching as long as she can. But in her sleepless nights, she breaks down. She wants one last year with her equally career-driven husband (Alec Baldwin).
But he insists that “we have to keep the important things going in our life.” Can she talk him into giving up his research, the career that has taken up too much of his spare time, for love?
Alice wants to see her oldest daughter (Kate Bosworth) give birth, her doctor son (Hunter Parrish) find love, and her youngest, Lydia (Kristin Stewart), to find herself.
Lydia is an aspiring actress, and mom isn’t above using her illness to try to manipulate her into going college or figuring out a more stable career. Many of the best scenes of “Still Alice” are the brittle, yet sometimes funny, mother-daughter debates between Moore and Stewart, perfectly cast as a pretty, promising would-be actress a little too obsessed with her hair.
The family dynamic — sibling name-calling, even into adulthood — feels real. The dry doctor-patient interaction, putting Alice through memory tests, are quietly alarming.
And every so often, Moore’s Alice slips, fails to make a joke that works about forgetting this or that, and breaks down. And our hearts break with hers.
Alice is the heroine of Lisa Genova’s novel, and of the film it’s based on. But it’s a stretch to call her heroic. Moore makes us root for Alice — not for a cure, which still seems a reach — but for a completion of her life’s goals, a chance to control her fate as long as she has the wherewithal to do it.
The guts of this gutsy performance are that we know, as she does, that this is the best she can hope for.