Still Alice begins at Alice’s (Julianne Moore) 50th birthday party. It’s a happy scene with Alice surrounded by her loving husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and two of her three children , the more “together” ones at that. As a briefed-viewer, one who knows the film is about earlier-onset Alzheimer’s disease, it’s a little like being at the top of the rollercoaster, waiting to drop, waiting for that first memory lapse. And it does, in that very first scene, ever so slightly. Alice speaks with her eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) about her relationship with her sister Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Alice becomes ever-so-slightly muddled and thinks they’re talking about her relationship with her own sister.
It’s a testament to the strength of Moore’s performance that no real exposition is required in order for the viewer to understand the magnitude of Alice’s loss. Material like this, that which is inherently, well, distressing, have the tendency to be produced by people who are going to milk the sobs for all their worth. And what’s surprising and nice about Still Alice is that it doesn’t. Sure, there are things a little too tidy like, for example, her profession as a linguistics professor, or the genetic quality of the disease as Anna becomes pregnant (which, by the way, Bosworth gives a laughably uptight performance. Seriously, how can someone have like five lines and you don’t buy any of them?). But, by and large, Still Alice doesn’t push too hard. It mostly doesn’t take cheap shots and simply allows the severity and the rawness of the Alzheimer’s process to be displayed, without fanfare.
Many have negative opinions about Kristen Stewart as an actress, mainly due to a certain degree of what is often described as, sullenness, brattiness, or a general lack of acting ability, Still Alice is a great opportunity to be proven wrong. As the outlier daughter without a college-degree and pursuing a career of acting, Lydia doesn’t suffer from the academic pretenses that keep the rest of the family from catering their responses to what Alice actually needs. There’s one such scene where Alice, newly dependent on her iPhone for virtual reminders of her schedule, wants to plug in information about Lydia’s play. Anna insists that she doesn’t need to do this, as it’s not like anyone will forget her. Lydia says, “Just let her do it” and later, “Don’t talk about her as if she’s not sitting right here.” Lydia, so frequently misunderstood, becomes the perfect translator for someone unable to represent themselves.
Which, of course, is truly the most heartbreaking part of the film: the idea that Alice no longer exists. Later, into the film as Alice is fully immersed in her Alzheimers, she sits eating yogurt and off-handedly remarks to John, “Someone told me, I was a good teacher. I was really smart.” To which he replies, “You were the smartest person I’ve ever known.” As an audience member you struggle to not yell out, but you’re not dead! There’s no was. Even though slowly you recognize, that this rhetoric is not really wrong; without her memories of her life, Alice somewhat ceases to be.
At the risk of sounding cliché, it is so easy to move through life jaded, unaware of our good fortune, in whatever form it may take. It is impossible, and border-line dangerous, to live everyday as if it were your last. However, Still Alice is a subtle reminder to be appreciative of life, both the one you live, as well as the one you have lived, because wouldn’t it be terrible to lose that ability?
Still Alice opens in Philly area theaters today.