By Kyle G. King. There is a certain sad face a mother makes that few can pull off with the same poignancy. When emotions swell and they can no longer hold back tears, they cry and wail and turn red and miserable. Then, when they realize that they’re being watched, through tears, they muster a big heartfelt smile as if to say, “You don’t need to worry about me, everything will be alright.” This happy-sad face is inherently motherly, and few working actors can sell this complex emotion better than Julianne Moore, which puts her right in the drivers seat for Richard Glatzer’s and Wash Westmoreland newest film about a linguistic professor struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, Still Alice.
With split credits in both screenwriting and directing, Glatzer and Westmoreland contemporize their adaption of neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, where Julianne Moore plays Alice Howaland, a 50-something university professor who seemingly has it all: a validating and well-respected career at Columbia, a loving husband who is equally as successful and academic as her (played by Alec Baldwin), three beautiful and promising children all on the cusp of something great: lawyers, doctors, and actors, (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart respectively), a brownstone in New York City and a summer home in Lido Beach. Nothing can touch her and the only problems of this upper class mother seem to be convincing her youngest daughter Lydia (Stewart) to finally start college and not bicker with her sister at the dinner table.
Julianne Moore, with her warm voice and welcoming smile, wins you over instantly, though the gut punches her lingering disease provide come just as swiftly: within the opening sequence Alice has confused a story being told to her, and immediately there comes a sense of dread. Her small moments of memory lapses begin to stack up and after a while Alice becomes reasonably concerned. She sees a neurologist who asks her a series of questions to test her cognitive memory. The camera doesn’t face the doctor during this first visit, leaving us alone with Alice as she faces this stark reality. (She doesn’t quite cry, but it’s our first taste of the happy-sad motherly face.) You can subtly sense the worry behind her eyes and almost hear the conversation in her head as she tries not to broadcast it. Moore grabs you and effortlessly pulls you along.
While many movies dealing with degenerative cerebral diseases frequently place their focus on the afflicted’s family (often to make the struggle more relatable), Still Alice always stays close to its titular character and her progression into dementia, making this story dynamic and emotional. The audience is challenged to remember things right alongside Alice, which strengthens our ties to her, keeping the specter of memory loss near. These moments of forgetfulness haunt the mind as if Still Alice were a horror film – in a lesser film they would feel like cheap scare tactics – instead these moments register as very real, for both Alice and her family. It’s a expertly crafted tone by Westmoreland and Glatzer (who suffers from ALS himself).
Apart from Moore, the film leaves a bit to be desired. Perhaps that’s due to Alec Baldwin, whose public stock isn’t exactly soaring these days and by taking a part, any part at all, his work is already cut out for him. While he has plenty of warm caring moments with his wife, he hardly registers as a father at all. When it comes time for a moment of parental sentiment between him and Lydia, the scene relies on Kristen Stewart to pull us through (which she surprisingly triumphs at throughout the film). The films biggest downfalls are found in its frequent pacing issues in sound design, editing, and basic framing, all of which take away from moments that would otherwise resonate. The ceaseless piano and maudlin violins that play even in scenes of little to no drama are far too heavy handed, even for a film that needs to take itself so seriously. What brings us back each time is Moore’s nuanced performance of a proud woman who is losing all that she has worked so hard to build for herself.
The tragedy of losing yourself and all that you love before your very eyes is as big a topic as most films can aim to tackle, but the idea is shrunk down to size and made relatable in Still Alice thanks to humane performances from both Julianne Moore and a supporting Kristen Stewart. However, it’s difficult to not taste a hint of made-for-TV movie schmaltz among its more expertly realized scenes.
It’s doubtful that an indie movie from Sony Classics will reach even half of the thirty-six million people affected with Alzheimer’s worldwide. But with a win at the Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination for best actress, Still Alice has a chance to touch many. Julianne Moore and her happy-sad mother face are certainly the saving grace of this feature that beyond all else, grounds the disease with real people and real emotions. It’s a film that persuades the audience not to merely observe it, but to embrace it.