It does little to dwell on the perceived cruelty of life. We cannot change it; we cannot predict it; we can only lean into it when it happens. For Alice, cruelty appeared at her doorstep with almost a chiding irony, seeking to strip away the exact nuts and bolts, the bits and pieces that made her Alice. So, she leans into it—not without falter, but she leans into it nonetheless, and no matter what, that will always make her Alice.
Writer/directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (The Last of Robin Hood, Quinceñera) confront the indomitable art of facing one’s own mortality in their most keenly personal feature yet, Still Alice. Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Westmoreland and Glatzer have peeled away abundance and superficies to uncover the core of character and drama.
As you might expect, it all begins with Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski), a specialist in linguistics who has built her life around the fascinations of human communication. With no lack of ambition, Alice doesn’t rest complacently when success is attained, a trait that she tries to impart on her three children: a lawyer, a doctor, and an aspiring actress (you can guess who she has the most advise for). Even her loving relationship with her husband and fellow doctor John (Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock") is imbedded with a sense of mutual success and control, but as Alice soon discovers, control is just an illusion.
Because of that precise illusion, it’s peculiar to her when she suddenly finds herself at a loss for words, quite literally, no matter how familiar or mundane. Places she could once traverse with her eyes closed suddenly are foreign. Even people close to her become nameless, blurred images. With no other explanation she turns to a neurologist, and after various memory tests and tasks, he diagnoses her with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that breaks down the very biological and social system that has driven her life and career.
To put it blatantly, this is by no means an easy movie, especially for those who have been affected by the heartbreaks of illness, but that is also precisely the reason why Still Alice succeeds on so many levels.
I mentioned earlier that this film represents Westmoreland and Glatzer’s most personal film to date, and that’s because mere months before they received Genova’s book for consideration, Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, the complete opposite of Alzheimer’s in terms of physical symptoms, but similar in its terminal outcome and its effect on the human spirit.
The result is gracefully reflective about not just the individual, but also about the individual’s fight to stay connected with the familial unit and the world at large despite the odds.
Through her three children, played by Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns), Hunter Parrish ("Weeds"), and especially in her truly intimate moments with the surprisingly likable and sensitive Kristen Stewart (Twilight), we see the desperation—no, the necessity—to keep her sense of self intact by whatever means necessary, even when it comes to her own death.
To draw us into Alice’s experience as the disease worsens, Westmoreland and Glatzer make their camerawork as subjective as possible, using cinematographer Denis Lenoir’s (Paris Je T’aime) hazy lens and editor Nicolas Chaudeurge’s (Fish Tank) timed cut to mark the unpredictable pulse of her condition. This results in an overwhelming sense of anxiety and discomfort, which can only be a testament to the true esteem of the directing and the film as a whole.
When all is said and done, however, it is Moore who sweeps the screen with a simultaneously vulnerable, yet resilient, gumption that deserves much admiration and praise. The frame rarely leaves the close quarters of her worried expression and spirit, and never does she falter. She leans into it. Just like Alice.
Still Alice opens in select theaters in NYC and LA on January 16th.
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