by TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
A death in the family is a terrible thing, but more than that, it is deceptive. We imagine these moments of sorrow as poetic, or dramatic, or full of some kind of Shakespearean energy. But the truth is that when bad news hits home, the world doesn’t stop moving: a sunny day doesn’t just turn into a rainy one to match your pain. Real heartbreak lives in the everyday – a living room, a restaurant, or a random phone call at three in the morning after what might have been a nice evening. Somehow, random chance is not without a sense of irony.
The story of “Still Alice” is not technically about a death in the family, but the same rule applies. When successful New York City phonetics professor Alice (Julianne Moore) begins to forget a few little things in her daily life, like a word here and there, or the name of a friend of a friend, she passes it off as just another simple symptom of aging. But soon, it seems that there is something more going on. She visits a neurologist, and the news is not good. Alice gathers her adult children together in one of those everyday living rooms, and tells them her situation – she is a victim of the extremely rare illness known as early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
This means that within a few years, with a quickly diminishing ability to retain her memories, Alice will become more distant: her memory loss will quickly leave her without a personality, a stranger in her own life. Her family will support her – her three children (keep your eyes peeled for a predictably messy looking Kristen Stewart in one of her best roles) and her husband (Alec Baldwin) are all blindsided by the news, but do not fully understand what is coming. For all her poise and seeming preparedness, neither does Alice, and neither do we.
Julianne Moore won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Alice, and she deserved it. What she accomplishes in this performance is at once sharp and intensely precise, and somehow also warm and reassuring. While Alice is a special movie – almost a call to arms in the supposedly lacking field of Alzheimer’s care, the only thing you will remember is Julianne Moore and her gift for emotional involvement in her character. It’s no understatement to say that the entire film revolves around her – the main dynamic of “Still Alice” exists between Moore’s Alice and the fading world around her. The other characters are poignant enough, but serve first and foremost to support and backdrop the radiant redhead for whom the part of Alice was certainly written.
I mentioned deaths in the family earlier because these are what the film is designed to mirror – Alice knows that her disease will soon destroy her, no matter what happens. As she makes preparations for the future, and says goodbye to her family in every way that doesn’t actually include saying those words, the solid grounding of reality begins to fade, and gives way to a rain washed slur of an existence, like a name written on a wall that begins to seep away over time. We feel her going: It was probably tempting to show us Alice’s Journey as an episodic one, hopping from scene to scene and from one memory-loss gaff to another, but thankfully it is not so simple. Alice is not a child, and she tries her hardest to face up to her grim future. The film’s best and most devastating device is a certain video file that Alice leaves for herself – for when all hope is lost.
As her mind fades, she begins to exist more and more in the memories of those around her, easing from the present to the past tense. But because nothing is ever really lost, Alice is simply walking down the path from her full and vivid life into a place of existence only within the memories of her loved ones: her own have failed her.
“Still Alice” is as saddening as it is cathartic. It seems tailor made as a vehicle to the Best Actress Oscar, and so every scene is structured carefully to bring out the best in Julianne Moore. That does not mean it doesn’t have heart, though. In fact, while our heroine is still fighting against her illness, just as long as she keeps trying to win her battle, we’re right there with her, helping her along to whatever end. In other words, the viewer never gives up on her: We do not expect a recovery, but we wish to help her to her find some kind of peace.
And so, “Still Alice” is to be commended not simply for being a tearjerker, (trust me, it is) but more importantly for finding something beautiful and simple in one of the most dark and miserable places imaginable. After all, it is sometimes only by losing something that we can really understand it.