Life is such a fragile thing. While we know that fact, at least philosophically, many of us are thankfully spared from having to confront it on a day-to-day basis. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is the deeply moving character study of what happens to a person who loses her very identity to the ravages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Julianne Moore’s performance as Alice – a highly intelligent, respected linguistics professor – devastated and humbled me.
This is a performer at the very top of her game. The subtlety Moore displays is pulverizing as her character quickly descends from someone who took pride in her mental capacity, and was the matriarch of her family, to a barely functional shell of her former self. Performances like this are why films like Still Alice can be such a gift: it shows us, in a beautiful and graceful way, how heart wrenching the loss of a loved one can be. Moore is helped every step of the way by directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland to make Alice a fully realized character.
The scene in which Alice first seeks the help of a neurologist to figure out what is wrong with her is a stand out example of Glatzer and Westmoreland’s thoughtful stylistic choices. This moment lasts approximately three minutes and consists of a single unbroken shot: Alice’s reaction to the dreaded news of what her recent memory troubles might mean. In a movie landscape that has been shaped more and more over the last three decades by so called “MTV style” editing, in which the average shot length seems to get shorter and shorter each year, this scene boldly refuses to cut. It holds, and holds, and holds. Moore’s face shows every thought of disbelief, shock, and horror as the news sinks in.
The camera choices by the directors and their cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, also mesh stylistically with the story they lovingly tell. Almost the entire film is shot with extremely shallow depth of field, many times making Moore the only subject in the frame that’s in focus. Over the course of the film, this gives the impression that Alice is increasingly cut off from the people she loves, as she is enveloped by her disease. These cinematographic elements, which highlight the cruelty of Alzheimer’s from a patient’s perspective, almost certainly originate with co-director Glatzer’s own diagnosis with ALS just prior to the start of shooting. It’s easy to see why Alice’s story is so lovingly told.
It isn’t fair to hold the rest of the cast up to the outrageously high standard Moore sets here, and perhaps that’s why they seem to fall short. Alec Baldwin comes off as too straight forward as Alice’s husband, John; merely doing what the script and story need him to do. But with no real depth or attention to detail, Baldwin gives the impression that any actor could have stepped into the role. Kristen Stewart as Lydia, one of Alice’s daughters and the black sheep of the family, continues her career of unappealing performances. She gets to be contrarian, moody, and put out with the world; right in line with Stewart’s public persona, except her acting is woefully inadequate and she has close to zero charisma on screen.
Lydia wants to be an actor despite her mother’s disapproval, which also seems tailor-made for Stewart but she really is a drag on the entire movie. In the last act Lydia and Alice have a series of scenes that should be very touching, but because of Stewart, I couldn’t quite get there. Indeed, the final scene is a heartbreaking reflection on the devastation that a disease like Alzheimer’s inflicts on its victims, but Stewart’s presence alone threatens to derail the film completely. Luckily, Julianne Moore is there to give the moment the crushing impact it needs.
This example of unfortunate casting does not keep Still Alice from being a transcendent experience. Composer Ilan Eshkeri does his part by delivering a quiet, elegiac piano heavy score that perfectly matches the movie’s tone. It’s a film that reminds us to make the most of every day we have, because life can take a sudden turn for the worse when we least expect it.