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AFI Fest 2014: ‘Still Alice’ – Film Review

There’s a poignant moment in Still Alice wherein the titular character, played by Julianne Moore, says, “I wish I had cancer.” When you have cancer, everyone wears ribbons in your honor, raises money, and gives you their utmost sympathy and, more importantly, respect. Alice doesn’t have cancer. She has Alzheimer’s. Instead of being embraced by society, she’s made to feel embarrassed by the things she says and does. Instead of people’s sympathy, she gets their pity, which is not the same. And, instead of destroying her body, the disease takes away her mind, piece by piece.

This last issue is particularly difficult for Alice Howland—Dr. Alice Howland, renowned professor of linguistics. She’s used to being brilliant and independent, and now she has to rely on others for everything. Perhaps more importantly, she’s used to having a great command of language, from analyzing its acquisition in children to playing Words with Friends with her eldest daughter, and now she has more and more trouble communicating with the people she loves most.

This movie is the most accurate portrayal I’ve ever seen of what Alzheimer’s is really like. A lot of movies that deal with it concentrate on one stage—generally one of the later ones, wherein the person forgets who their family members are, or has unforeseen outbursts of anger and hostility. Still Alice shows the progression of the disease, which is much more powerful and much more difficult to watch. It starts at the very beginning—you can see the first subtle symptoms from the opening scene—and spans several years, showing Alice’s decline to the point where she needs total care.

She’s not helpless on this journey. She’s a brilliant woman, and she finds ways of fighting back, of soldiering on despite her disease. When a task becomes difficult for her, she comes up with a different way of doing it, to accommodate the setback. She does exercises to keep important information in her memory and uses her smartphone to remind her of appointments, names, dates, etc. that she would otherwise forget. But, it’s a losing battle. This movie cannot end happily. Even the medication she takes doesn’t slow the progression of the disease, but merely alleviates the symptoms. Slowly but surely, despite all her efforts, Alice loses herself, and neither she nor anyone else can do anything but watch it happen.

Julianne Moore is phenomenal in the lead role. I sincerely hope she gets an Oscar for her performance. We see most of the movie through her eyes, watching her struggle and gradual descent, one painful step at a time. She doesn’t carry the movie alone, though. Her family members also play important roles, each dealing with Alice’s disease in their own way.

There’s Kate Bosworth as the eldest daughter, who has little time for such things, as she’s busy with her own life, trying to have a child. As such, she’s often curt and condescending to her mother. There’s Kristen Stewart, the rebellious younger daughter who has a slightly tempestuous relationship with her mother—and even more so with her “Miss Perfect” older sister—but who really wants to do right by her, if she can. And, finally, there’s Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband. He, especially, may seem callous and unsympathetic towards his wife’s plight, but he’s not. He genuinely cares for her, loves her, wants to do whatever he can for her. But, he hates seeing her this way. He doesn’t want to admit that this is happening to the woman he loves, and certainly doesn’t want to witness it. Though I don’t agree with all of his actions, I also can’t say I blame him.

To some extent, this is the way it is with all of Alice’s family. They come off as uncaring sometimes, but the truth is, they just don’t know how to treat her or how to act around her. It’s a delicate situation, and some of them handle it badly. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care.

This was a difficult movie for me to watch, as I have somewhat of a personal connection to Alzheimer’s and watching a loved one slowly succumb to it. I was glad I did, though. It’s a powerful film and very well made. One thing that struck me in particular was the camerawork. It’s often designed specifically to give a feel of confusion and uncertainty. There’s an excellent use of out-of-focus images to convey things that are so close, but still quite can’t be grasped. In other scenes, important objects or characters are just out of frame, creating a palpable sense of frustration at not being able to see the thing that’s being talked about.

Not only is this film an excellent and accurate portrayal of the struggle of Alzheimer’s, it’s also a very important reminder. As the movie progresses, Alice loses more and more of her memories, more and more of what made her who she was. But, she’s still Alice. At every stage in the disease, there’s still a spark left underneath it all, of who she was—who she still is. She can make jokes about it at times and let the whole family have a laugh, not at her, but with her. Even when she’s at her worst, sometimes something shines through from underneath, and she reacts to what’s going on in a way that only Alice can or would.

That’s one of the things that makes the disease so difficult to watch. There are good days and bad days—and then the good days become good moments, and those moments grow further and further apart. But, every once in awhile, just for a second, they do something or say something that makes you see them for who they are underneath, the person you know and love. And, you realize that they’re still there. Still Alice manages to capture that feeling a couple of times, in a way that few other movies have.

If you’ve had the misfortune to watch someone you love succumb to Alzheimer’s (as many of us have), then you might not want to brave watching this movie. I wouldn’t blame you for finding it difficult. But, believe me when I say that it’s an incredible film, and though its heartbreaking, it’s also important and worth seeing. If you haven’t had to deal with Alzheimer’s firsthand, then you should definitely watch the film. It paints a very real picture of the struggle, both of the sufferer and of their family, and can help you understand what it’s like. And, when it comes to Alzheimer’s, we could all use a little more understanding.

Steven W. Alloway, Fanbase Press Contributor



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