Julianne Moore’s character has Alzheimer’s Disease. She and her family deal with it. The end.
If it sounds like I’m being facetious, I’m not. The plot to Still Alice is far from novel or all that interesting, but it’s made powerful by the leading performance of Julianne Moore as a person who sees their intelligence slipping away from them. Despite this, she masters the art of losing and lives every single waking moment of her life in the moment. Let’s dive in.
The film begins at the birthday celebration of our main character, Alice Howland, played by Julianne Moore. She’s celebrating this occasion with most of her family: her husband, John, played by Alec Baldwin, her son, Tom, played by Hunter Parrish, her daughter, Anna, played by Kate Bosworth, and Anna’s fiancé, Charlie, played by Shane McRae. Missing from this occasion is Alice’s other daughter, Lydia, who had an audition, but we’ll get to her later.
Alice Howland is a linguistics professor at Columbia University, but she takes time from her busy schedule to fly from New York to California and give a lecture at UCLA. She’s introduced by UCLA Associate Professor Frederic Johnson, played by Seth Gilliam, and we learn that she even wrote her first book while handling three kids at the same time. Now that’s how you multitask. Her presentation focuses on infants and past tense irregular verb forms, but not too far into her lecture, Alice loses her place for a second before returning to the interaction between memory and computation.
Still in Los Angeles, Alice pays a visit to her daughter, Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart, and the two head to lunch. Lydia works at the Open Space theatre company and actually received some generous help from her father. The performers have to raise equity for the productions, and then they receive a cut of the box office. Such is the life of a theatre group. Alice suggests that Lydia go to college and we learn that this isn’t the first time these two have had this conversation. Regardless, Lydia likes what she’s doing.
Alice heads home and finds her husband is not there, so she decides to go for a jog. When she reaches the center of Columbia University’s campus, however, she slows down. Her vision becomes a blur and she looks around as if she’s suddenly forgotten where she is. She takes a moment to focus and she then remembers her surroundings. She heads home.
John is at home this time when Alice heads in. She’s not too pleased about him bankrolling her theatre company. Even though John remembers telling her that, Alice says that he didn’t. Okay, then. Anyway, John has some more work to do at the lab, so he’ll be back in to get comfortable with Alice later.
Noticing that her memory is leaving her, Alice visits a neurologist whom we don’t see. She started forgetting little things and now she forgot where she was on campus. Nothing irregular about her medication and she hasn’t had any head injuries. Sure, she’s busy with work, but Alice thrives on that. So the doctor decides to test her. First, he gives her an address to remember: John Black, 42 Washington Street, Hoboken. She repeats it back fine right after hearing it, gives her name, and even today’s date.
We learn from this session that Alice’s mother and sister died in a car accident when Alice was 18. Her father died in 1999 of liver failure- cirrhosis, as he was an alcoholic. When asked to repeat that name and address, Alice can only get as far as the name. The doctor tells Alice that he will do an MRI later in order to rule some things out. When Alice comes the next time, she’ll need to bring in someone that knows her well.
Later, Alice prepares Christmas dinner, all while remembering three words at a time that she’s written on a white board in the kitchen. Tom soon enters and introduces his mother to his new girlfriend, Jenny, played by Erin Darke. While the rest of the family settles in, Alice continues cooking, but finds that she has to look up the recipe for bread pudding instead of remembering it off the top of her head. Dinner is soon served, but when Alice joins the family, she introduces herself to Jenny for a second time.
Back at the neurologist, Alice is relieved to learn that almost nothing bad came out of the MRI: blood work was clear and no sign of a stroke or cerebral vascular disease. The doctor is concerned about the memory tests he sent Alice for. Alice has sporadic memory impairment that is very out of proportion for someone her age- Alice is 50 years old, by the way. This means there is evidence of decline in Alice’s level of mental function. Hence, the doctor wants to perform a PET scan to see if the results are consistent with Alzheimer’s. Such a diagnosis would be rare, given Alice’s age, but she does fit the criteria. As far as why Alice didn’t bring anyone with her, she didn’t think it was necessary. Next time for sure, though.
At home, Alice scrubs the shit out of a pot while John informs her that their friends, Phil and Diane, may come to town for a weekend.
That night, Alice wakes John up and tells him that she’s been seeing a neurologist and the possibility of her having early onset Alzheimer’s. She didn’t want to tell him at first since nothing was confirmed, but the more Alice does these tests, the more frightened she’s become. John doesn’t believe it and tells Alice that everyone has the occasional memory lapse, but Alice tells him of the time she got lost on campus. She’ll have something, and then it just drops out under her. In a flash of anger, Alice rages at John for not taking this seriously.
Next morning, John informs Alice that he’ll be late due to work, but suggests that the two get dinner. Alice tells him that last night just got the better of her.
John accompanies Alice to the doctor’s office and we finally meet Dr. Benjamin, played by Stephen Kunken, who shows a cross-section of Alice’s brain. There are a lot of red areas that are high in beta amyloid, meaning the buildup has been going on for years. John isn’t too convinced. Sure, there are instances of high beta amyloid in older people with normal cognitive function, but this is very rare with someone as young as Alice.
And then John suggests that the diagnosis be accompanied by a genetic test. Dr. Benjamin actually agrees. In a case like this, with the onset being so early, he’d like to check for presenilin mutations. That would be an indicator of the rare Familial Alzheimer’s Disease. The chance of her passing this gene onto her kids is 50/50, but the chance of them contracting this is 100 percent. The kids will all be in town for Alice and John’s anniversary, but Alice wants to hold off on telling them until they have the test results.
They finally break the news to the kids later, though the announcement actually confirms Lydia’s suspicion from the Christmas dinner. Alice’s medications can help alleviate the symptoms, but not prevent the disease. When the kids learn that the disease is genetic, John tells them that there is a test they can take, but it’s up to them.
But Alice is still a professor. She has that much. She heads to the university to give a lecture, but can’t remember which lecture she’s giving. She calls upon the students to jog her memory and remind her that she’s speaking on phonology.
As Alice makes her way across campus, she gets a phone call from Anna, who checked positive for the gene. Tom turned out negative and Lydia didn’t want to know. Anna’s next step is to test her embryos during her next IUI session to make sure her baby will be okay.
After finding a bottle of Dove shampoo in her refrigerator- it could happen- she meets up with the heads of the Linguistics Department, Eric Wellman, played by Daniel Gerroll, who reads some of the student evaluations on Alice’s performance. Words like “muddled” and “lost” pop up in the reviews, much to Alice’s dismay. Alice tells Eric about her mild cognitive impairment, but she unpacks that as Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease. Though Alice feels capable now and has no issues with stress, Eric still needs to inform the rest of the department.
Alice makes a stop by Pinkberry, but when she arrives at home, she’s missed her dinner plans with John and their two friends. Alice just forgot is all. She does have Alzheimer’s. Plus, she doesn’t take her phone with her when she’s jogging and fanny packs are just inhibiting. Neither of them likes this situation, but both understand that they have to keep going. In a moment of utter defiance to her fate, Alice wishes aloud that she had cancer instead. She wouldn’t feel so ashamed and hey, there are even cancer walks.
Following a brief visit to the Mount Auburn Nursing Center, Alice visits a doctor in the hopes of getting a very strong drug. The reason for this comes in the form of a video that she records for her future self. In this video, she tells her future self that she may have reached the point where she can no longer answer the questions she’s put on her iPhone.
So this is the next, logical step: in her bedroom there’s a dresser with a blue lamp on it. In the back of the top drawer is a bottle of pills with a note that reads “Take all pills with water.” There will be a lot of pills in the bottle, but it’s important that she swallows them all. After that, lie down and go to sleep. Oh, and don’t tell anyone what she’s doing. To begin this process, all she has to do is go to a file on her computer labeled “Butterfly.”
Well, I’ll give her this- she prepared ahead of time.
The plot to Still Alice isn’t anything that I’d call all that compelling or inventive. That doesn’t make it a bad film at all. Quite the contrary. What could just be a movie about a family coming to term with one woman’s disease and her deteriorating intellect is elevated by the performances of the film’s cast. While the movie could have fallen back on showing how Alice’s disease tears the family apart, that’s not the case here. This film is about Alice’s struggle to be the same person she always has been as she stares down the inevitable loss of her memory.
There have been a lot of people who have compared Still Alice to that of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie because of the simplicity of the story. Sure, the plot may seem pretty basic, but I wouldn’t say it’s on the level of a television film. Tackling a disease can be tricky: you don’t want to spoon-feed your audience everything there is to know and you don’t want to just add in unnecessary drama for the sake of creating a tearjerker of a film. Maybe that’s because I’m a cold-hearted bastard, as I saw quite a number of folks brought to tears while watching this in the cinema. Despite knowing that Alice’s condition would get worse, the movie still managed to suck everyone in and had quite a few tense moments.
This film is almost deceptive with its introduction. Alice has everything going for her: she’s a successful, well-known author and professor, has a nice, affordable home in New York, and has a loving husband and kids all living out their dreams. I don’t know how many people can relate to such a perfect family image, but what makes Alice and her family relatable is how they deal with the gravity of Alice’s situation.
No one in this family is perfect. Alice and John can be a bit stubborn at times, Anna can be a bit overprotective, and Lydia isn’t living the life that her mother wants her to live. Granted, that’s not really a flaw since Lydia is playing by her rules and not letting her mother dictate her life, but given the exchanges between the two, I got the sense that Lydia was always the independent and rebellious child.
But despite how different they all are, the family still pulls together in the wake of Alice’s diagnosis and promises to be by her side. It’s only when Alice’s condition worsens that they realize the reality of their situation and how Alice may end up too far gone. There are moments in the film when John discusses Alice’s future with his kids. Alice is at the opposite end of the room on the sofa, not fully present, but the family acts as if she’s not there. They aren’t doing this out of spite, but because they feel a need to move on with their lives. Alice isn’t a burden, but the continued worsening of her intellect shows that taking care of her may be more challenging than the family thought.
A recent comparison to this would be The Theory of Everything, but the key difference in that film is Stephen Hawking was restricted by his body. He still had his intellect.
Here, it’s the other way around. Alice may still be capable of jogging around Columbia University’s campus, but when she gets lost, it’s as if she’s in a different world altogether. These scenes are handled very well through Denis Lenoir’s cinematography. Whenever Alice loses sight of where she is, everything around her becomes blurry and unfocused, as if we’re watching the disease eat away at her mind. It’s an effective way to put the audience in her shoes so we can see how her intelligence and memory erode.
The movie also takes its time in showing the extent to which Alice forgets things. It starts small with her losing her place during a lecture or not remembering the address when she visits the neurologist, but that could be chalked up to a memory lapse. She looks up the banana pudding recipe, but maybe it’s been a long time since she prepared it. When she reintroduces herself to Jenny, it’s the first inkling of her family becoming aware of the disease.
As the film continues, Alice’s conditions worsen to the point where the simplest things to remember become buried at the back of her mind. There’s a rough moment where she and John are about to go for a jog, but she stops by the bathroom before leaving. Or, at least, she tries to. She goes downstairs and looks in room after room, but doesn’t find it. The camera remains on her face as she becomes flushed from embarrassment. When John comes downstairs and finds that Alice has wet herself, Alice collapses in tears as she literally has no idea where she is. Sure, the brash side of me would suggest something like going outside or calling for help, but that’s thinking too much into the situation. At this point, you realize the extent at which Alice is forgetting things.
And that’s where technology comes in. In this fast-paced world we live in where we can have all the information we need in our phones or tablets, this becomes essential for Alice. From the beginning, we know Alice is very tech-savvy. Communications is her thing. She’s a frequent Words with Friends player and, like most of us today, uses her phone to look up anything she needs or can’t remember. This becomes essential when she forgets things, as she types in questions to herself like what her daughter’s name is or asking for her birthday. The simplest things for us to remember become the most impossible for Alice.
So she thinks ahead and makes preparations, such as the suicide video, but also getting a glimpse at what her life could become. When Alice visits the nursing home under the pretext of being worried about her parents, she sees patients that are cared for, but are mentally lost and wandering. If one gets up, an alarm goes off from their chair due to past behaviors. This is the life Alice fears and knows will soon be her own and though this moment is a bit too telling, it’s still a great, sad scene.
The film does a good job making Alice sympathetic. When she tells John that she’d rather have cancer, it’s one of the most serious things we hear her say in the film. With cancer, she feels there’d be an outpouring of sympathy for the victim, but with Alzheimer’s, there’s a sense of shame and a need to hide it. With cancer, she’ll at least have her memory, but with Alzheimer’s, she ends up forgetting her own daughter’s names.
What’s great about Alice is that she never paints herself as a victim or believes that she’s suffering. She knows that her memory is leaving her, but at the end of the day, she is, to be cliché, still Alice. There’s a great moment later on in the film where she delivers a speech at the Alzheimer’s Association that I feel is the crux of the film: she loses a part of herself every day, knows that her work is being ripped away from her, and feels that every day is worse than the previous one. She’s not her ambitious self anymore and knows that she may not even remember the speech she gives, but this disease has emboldened her to live life in the moment.
For my money, this is easily the biggest moment in the film not just for Alice, but for the movie as a whole. It goes hand in hand with one of the film’s central themes: living life to the fullest every day. We take our minds for granted. Every day we wake up isn’t promised to us, so we should live in the moment. The film doesn’t try to hit you over the head with this message and there’s no big, swelling background score that accompanies Alice’s speech. It’s thoughtful and handled with grace. Going back to watching this in the cinema for a second, this was the first moment that brought the woman sitting next to me to tears.
It can’t be stated enough how stellar Julianne Moore is in this role. She gives Alice such dimension and the smallest change in her facial expression conveys a lot of emotion. Alice starts off as an intellectual, yet by film’s end, she’s almost a child. Moore could easily have made this role feel cheep and sappy, but there’s a quiet dignity to her performance. She’s firm with her daughter, but still a caring mother. Revealing to her children that she has Alzheimer’s is one of the hardest conversations she has in the film and there’s such sorrow in Alice’s voice that she feels her children’s future disease is entirely on her hands.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Alice meets her neurologist and learns her diagnosis. We never see the doctor in this moment. The camera remains on Alice the entire time and allows Moore to show how Alice is struggling with disbelief at learning her fate. She wants to remain confident, but that doesn’t mean she’s not scared. Moore doesn’t sleepwalk through this film. As mentioned, she still grapples with her husband about their future, even if she knows she may not even be a part of it anymore.
In one of the moments the film uses Alice’s disease for comedic effect, Lydia tells Alice that she can’t use her disease as a reason to get her to do something. Lydia responds that, in fact, she can. When she forgets that she was supposed to have dinner with Jack, she tells him that she forgot since she has Alzheimer’s. If I wanted to look too deep into that, I would say that Alice is using humor as a buffer to take her mind off the fact that she’s losing her memory. This experience doesn’t humble her because she never came off as a braggart or boastful type, but it does make her relish every moment she has, even if that means having a laugh at her own fate.
The rest of the cast is good in their roles, but only two other actors had noteworthy performances. Alec Baldwin is warm and caring as Alice’s husband who wants to understand what she’s going through and help in any way that he can. He’s in denial about Alice coming down with Alzheimer’s at first, but soon accepts it and becomes more supportive, for a bit. Work soon takes priority and the film establishes very early on that John is a workaholic. If he isn’t discussing work, he is working. He’s not uncaring, but he can’t stop to put his life on hold just because his wife is regressing.
On the flipside, you have Kristen Stewart as Lydia, who is living her life on her terms and feels no need to stay under her parent’s protection. Sure, she might not be fully secure as far as finances go, but she does what she loves and knows that the career path she chose would be difficult. I have to wonder if this is what all people who decide to work in theatre have to deal with.
Lydia may come off as distant, but she genuinely cares for her mother. They argue back and forth like they’ve done it for years, but still manage to reconcile their differences. Lydia makes a point of noting how her parents helped Tom with medical school and Anna with law school, but Lydia chose to forego college and pursue theatre. As Alice’s memory slips further and further, her daughter has a more proactive role in her life. They have constant conversations over Skype, discuss Lydia’s plays, and grow closer as time goes on.
There’s such genuine chemistry between Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart that I bought their mother-daughter relationship. There’s a scene where Alice describes what she thinks is one of Lydia’s plays, but it turns out that she accidentally read entries from her daughter’s journal. Lydia is upset, but she comes to accept that her mother didn’t do it intentionally and later decides that the two shouldn’t have any more secrets from each other. And the final scenes between the two are both strong and sad at the same time.
Still Alice may not have the most engrossing or engaging plot, but what sells this film is Julianne Moore’s incredible performance of a person watching her mind and intellect fade away right in front of her. She’s afraid and knows that she may not be the same intellectual she once was, but she makes sure to live in the moment and doesn’t want you to think she’s suffering. Dr. Alice Howland has mastered the art of losing still finds life as precious as a butterfly. Still Alice would not be as interesting of a film if not for Moore’s performance. That’s not to say the film is just average, but Moore is the film’s biggest strength.