Still Alice is a valuable film, succeeding on several levels.
Its greatest achievement is Julianne Moore’s Oscar-nominated performance as Alice, who we meet as a 50-year-old linguistics professor at Columbia University, New York.
Alice’s life revolves around her family, her work and her self-definition as a highly verbal, inquisitive academic. After a few clunky hints early in the movie that something is wrong, she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s – a frightening, life-destroying dementia that gradually demolishes the mind and, before too long, the personality.
Moore’s emotional range here is typically restrained, generally expressed through facial gestures and smiles as Alice begins losing her memories and language. So when they do erupt, her detailed expressions of grief, terror and embarrassment almost shock the audience.
In support, Kristen Stewart is subtle as Lydia, Alice’s LA-based, non-conforming youngest child. We initially get to know her second-hand, as it were, as we watch mother and daughter Skype and Lydia slowly sets aside a flat, cold manner to reveal true compassion.
Far less interesting is a chubby Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband, John. He never really inhabits his comparatively minor part and largely walks through John’s faltering capacity to cope. Kate Bosworth, meanwhile, seems just a little too pretty, successful and arch as Lydia’s older sister, Anna.
Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice was independently written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
As with so many movies about people’s interior lives, the plot unfolds in a privileged WASP environment: money is never an object, great jobs are easy to come by and homes are always elegant. But here at least, the setting is just a naturalistic plot device, helping Alice’s story – and Julianne Moore’s finely detailed performance – unfold with minimal distractions.
Still Alice is a clever, low-budget production aimed artfully at baby boomers, because over and above its rich entertainment value it also serves as community education – a barbecue-stopper.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is a rare disease but Still Alice will spark a range of conversations. Alice’s symptoms are similar to behaviour many boomers will have seen in elderly parents – and may eventually suffer themselves. Their patronage will no doubt help return Still Alice’s reported US$4 million budget many times over.
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