Still Alice opens with a celebration: Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a respected linguistics professor at Columbia University, is ringing in her 50th birthday at a posh restaurant in the company of her surgeon husband (Alec Baldwin) and two of their grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), who is married and studying law, and Tom (Hunter Parrish), who is making his way through med school. The only one missing is her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who chucked the family tradition and skipped college to move to Los Angeles and become an actress.
Alice is blessed with a loving family, a caring husband, a thriving career and no need to ever worry about money. But then cracks start to form around her near-perfect life: First she forgets a word during a lecture at UCLA about the way we communicate (she remembers it later on the car ride back to her hotel). After visiting Lydia and imploring her to go to college as a safety net, she returns home to New York, goes for a jog and gets lost. Worried that she may have a brain tumor, she goes to see a neurologist, who runs a battery of tests. The good news is that there is no tumor. The bad news is devastating: She has tested positive for early onset Alzheimer’s. If it turns out to be a genetic disorder, there is a 50-50 chance her children will inherit it, too.
Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice, which was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera), sounds like a disease-movie-of-the-week, and in many ways it is, charting the gradual deterioration of someone afflicted with an incurable illness. The ending is predetermined. What counts is how the film gets there, and with Moore’s formidable, Oscar-bound performance, the picture transcends the usual cliches of the genre to become something far more moving and profound.
Moore, who radiates a deep intelligence and humanity even when she’s playing shallow characters — think of her as the cokehead porn star in Boogie Nights — pulls off an astonishing feat, showing us the light and life in her eyes gradually dimming as the disease takes hold. The movie is harrowing, as any story about Alzheimer’s should be, but Moore gives it an extra layer of gravity and heartbreaking inevitability. You become a member of her onscreen family, hoping against hope for a miracle that you know will never come.
The film, which deftly avoids cheap tears or melodramatic situations, sneaks up on you the way the illness sneaks up on Alice. Once she is diagnosed, her first reaction is terror. Here is a woman of great intellect who has made a career out of language, and watching her stumbling over a simple phrase after she’s forgotten a word, or writing reminders to herself on her cellphone about mundane things, takes on the undertones of a cruel, hateful joke. When she tells her husband “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed,” Moore makes you understand the frustration and anger Alice feels at her inability to do anything about her condition other than learn to live with it.
Alzheimer’s isn’t just a horrible disease for the afflicted: It is also grueling on their families, who must continue to lead their lives while caring for a person who is increasingly distant and difficult. When she gets home from a run and her husband asks her where she’s been, because they had made important dinner plans with another couple, Alice snaps, “I’m sorry, I forgot. I have Alzheimer’s.” But there’s a strong suggestion that she did it on purpose, preferring to hide behind her condition rather than risk looking like a fool in front of her friends. As her disease progresses at an alarming speed, the movie puts you through the wringer, such as a scene in which she can’t find the bathroom in her home and soils herself, or another scene in which she’s talking to her daughter without recognizing her.
The supporting performances are strong, especially Baldwin as Alice’s unwavering rock of a husband and Stewart as her rebellious daughter, who knows her mother considers her the black sheep of the family. Despite its simple premise, Still Alice is an emotionally complex work, exploring the different ways in which each of Alice’s loved ones deals with her condition. But the movie wouldn’t work at all without Moore, who captures the cruel tragedy of the disease without ever begging for the audience’s pity.
The movie is hampered only by its overly pat ending, which solves several dilemmas with a convenient deus ex machina. But what you remember most is Moore as Alice, a woman fading into a ghost of herself in front of your eyes, her panic gradually giving way to blissful, heartbreaking obliviousness. As we age, memories become our most prized possessions. Still Alice illuminates the grand tragedy and loneliness of people whose bodies remain healthy but whose minds — and memories — abandon them.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.
Writers-directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Based on the novel by Lisa Genova.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Aventura, South Beach; in Broward: Paradise, Boynton Beach; in Palm Beach: Palace, Living Room.