Sad, beautiful, and determined to not leave a dry eye in the house, Still Alice is a devastating film you will not soon forget. Watching it requires having an open heart, access to lots of tissues, and the ability to realize you’re going see an otherwise healthy woman undergo a horrible ordeal.
When we first meet Alice (Julianne Moore), it’s her 50th birthday, and she’s happy. She teaches linguistics at Columbia University in New York City, where her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is also employed. Their three kids are grown and on their own: Anna (Kate Bosworth) and husband Charlie (Shane McRae) are ready for a baby, Tom (Hunter Parrish) is in medical school, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Alice could not have dreamed of a better life. But she’s getting forgetful. Words elude her, she loses her place during speeches, and she even gets lost during a run around campus. The diagnosis: Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The reaction: complete shock and terror — it’s rare for someone her age to be afflicted with this debilitating disease.
Alice deteriorates quickly, and it’s painful to watch. Moore, who is absolutely phenomenal, goes from energetic and vibrant to flustered and defeated. It’s a heartbreaking transition, progressing gradually for us but all too fast for Alice and her family. Her fear is legitimate and her pain — more emotional than physical — is unimaginable. When Alice wakes in the middle of the night to tell John what’s happening for the first time, she breaks down and sobs in his arms. I nearly sobbed, too. Other elements are more subtle; take notice of Moore’s hair and clothes throughout the film. They morph from bold and full of life to haggard and frumpy, ransacked by the inability to think clearly and with purpose.
Importantly, co-writers and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland also give ample time to the effect Alice’s condition has on her family, which is substantial. John is loving and supportive, but even the best of souls needs a break from the constant care and worry. Anna fights to maintain her mother’s dignity, Tom is encouraging even though he feels helpless, and Lydia — who has a strained relationship with her mother — struggles to be a good daughter while not losing track of her own dreams. Kristen Stewart has taken plenty of heat in the press (much of it deserved), but she’s strong here. She makes Lydia a compassionate soul in search of herself at a time when her mother is losing herself. It’s a balanced dichotomy that works because of the performances and smart structure of the story. Their chats, fights and angst all feel real, to the point that Moore will owe a big thank-you to Stewart for any award the veteran actor receives.
Still Alice is not for the weak or bashful. If you’ve had a family member endure Alzheimer’s or dementia, it may bring back painful memories. This is a movie that punches you in the gut with inevitabilities and the unfairness of life, leaving viewers with tears in their eyes and the hope that it doesn’t happen to them.