Sunday 8 March 2015

Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

A stunning performance from Julianne Moore as a victim of early onset Alzheimer's lifts Still Alice away from made-for-TV disease-of-the-week standards, but the film still can't generate much of a narrative beyond the basic premise.

Fifty year old Alice Howland (Moore) is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. She is married to John (Alec Baldwin), and their three twentysomething children are Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the blacksheep of the family and a struggling actress, Anna (Kate Bosworth), an image of her mother, married and trying to conceive, and Tom (Hunter Parrish), a college student. When Alice finds herself more frequently struggling to find words that should be second nature, she undergoes a series of tests and is diagnosed with a rare case of early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Her decline is subsequently steady and rapid. She is unable to continue functioning as a professor, and starts to forget familiar people and places. She struggles to concentrate and to maintain a sense of dignity and purpose, and slowly she loses touch with her life, her family and her being. John and the children have to adjust to Alice slipping away, and continue some semblance of life.

Julianne Moore deservedly won the Best Actress Academy Award, and her performance is flawless. The heartbreak of witnessing a high achiever like Alice wilt and hollow-out into a shell of a woman is indescribable, and Moore's incremental transformation from a confident professor to a scarcely-there woman is stunning. There is no physical glory in conveying a quiet mental disease, and Moore is perfect in finding the less-is-more space where a brain misfires, then fades in stretches, then effectively functions only in the random bursts that only serve as an agonizing reminder that there is still something there, barely. Moore finds a highlight when Alice gives a talk at an Alzheimer's conference, the once masterful professor struggling to write, prepare and deliver a simple presentation, and cajoling herself into a small moment of triumph.

As a film, there is little else to Still Alice. Co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, working from their own adaptation of the Lisa Genova novel, do their best to create an upper middle-class family dynamic grappling with typical upper middle-class issues. The major conflict revolves around Lydia forgoing college and pursuing her dream as an actress in California, much to Alice's chagrin. Anna is going through the travails of trying to get pregnant, and the sisters are still prone to childlike sniping across the dining room table. In the late stages of Alice's disease, John has to make a decision to either remain as the primary support for an almost fully degenerated wife, or pursue a career opportunity.

Kristen Stewart emerges as the second most interesting actress in the movie, and her turn as Lydia is creditable. Stewart nails the awkward role where Lydia she still deeply cares about her family but also knows that she does not quite fit in. Her interactions with Alice are the most affecting within the family circle, progressing from mother badgering her daughter as only mothers can badger their daughters, and ending with a daughter trying to find the remaining singular spot of light in her mother's rapidly decaying brain.

Still Alice may focus on just the one character and her disease, but it's still an ultimate destination that applies to all.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

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