Toronto Film Review: ‘Still Alice’

Still Alice Toronto Film Festival

Julianne Moore plays a woman slowly disappearing within her own body in this sensitive and restrained look at early-onset Alzheimer's.

When the movies deal with Alzheimer’s, they nearly always approach it from the vantage of the family members who are painfully forgotten as loved ones lose their memories. “Still Alice” shows the process from the victim’s p.o.v., and suddenly the disease isn’t just something sad that happens to other people, but a condition we can relate to firsthand. Julianne Moore guides us through the tragic arc of how it must feel to disappear before one’s own eyes, accomplishing one of her most powerful performances by underplaying the scenario — a low-key approach that should serve this dignified indie well in limited release.

Based on the novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, “Still Alice” gives new meaning to the phrase, “It happens to the best of us.” Columbia professor Alice Howland is the sort of character who, even without Alzheimer’s to contend with, is accomplished and interesting enough to warrant her own movie. She has achieved much in her 50-odd years, both as a respected scholar and mother of three grown children, played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish.

For the otherwise healthy Alice, there’s no good reason why Alzheimer’s should strike now, nearly 15 years before it traditionally occurs, although, as her doctor points out, the condition can actually be harder to diagnose in intelligent people, since they’re capable of devising elaborate work-arounds that mask the problem. Genova’s book hit especially close to home for husband-and-husband helmers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera”), since Glatzer suffers from ALS — another degenerative condition that systematically attacks one’s sense of self.

At first, it’s just a word that goes missing in the middle of one of Alice’s linguistics lectures. But the situation gets scarier when she loses track of where she is during her daily jog. Since Alice’s disease involves short-term memory loss, a number of the tests she faces are ones the audience can take alongside, with the inevitable result that we start to reflect on the blind spots in our memory. Forgetting things isn’t unusual even among perfectly healthy adults, making it easy to identify with Moore, who plays her initial concerns quite casually.

It’s not until Alice learns that the disease is hereditary that the severity of her situation sets in: As if it weren’t bad enough that she will eventually cease to recognize her own children, Alice may also be responsible for passing the condition along to them. This is a tragedy, pure and simple, and yet the directing duo refuses to milk the family’s situation for easy tears. Instead, the idea is to put us inside Alice’s head. We experience disorientation as she would, suggested by a shallow depth of field where things shown out of focus appear to be just beyond her comprehension.

Alice’s diagnosis calls for a form of grieving, during which she tries coming to terms with the fact that life as it had previously existed is now over. She tells the department chair at Columbia U., where she taught, about her Alzheimer’s and is promptly dismissed from her position. She gets lost in her own home and is easily overwhelmed whenever she steps out of it. Though her husband John (Alec Balwin) aims to be supportive, he refuses to let her condition derail his own professional life. Alice begs him to take a year off work so they can be together before she’s too far gone to experience her own life, making visits to retirement homes and making contingency plans (a bottle of sleeping pills stashed at the back of a dresser drawer) for the day when she can no longer answer a series of personal questions about her life.

The directorial couple must have gone through something very similar when Glatzer’s ALS kicked in, forcing him to accept that his body had become his greatest enemy. The pair bring that personal connection to the writing process, emphasizing Alice’s emotions over those of her various family members — although Stewart, whose character steps in as caregiver at one point, gets several intimate, unshowy scenes with Moore. The helmers have made a conscious decision to keep things quiet, commissioning a score from British composer Ilan Eshkeri that doesn’t tell you how to feel, but rather how she feels: lost, emotional and anxious most of the time.

Clearly, Glatzer has not yet given up, and neither does Alice, despite her relatively rapid degeneration. It’s a devastating thing to watch the light of recognition dwindle in her eyes, to see the assertive, confident lecturer that she had so recently been reduced to the nervous, scared woman we see delivering one last speech at an Alzheimer’s society confab. After the stiff lifelessness of “The Last of Robin Hood,” the helmers have made a near-total recovery, shooting things in such a way that activity is constantly spilling beyond the edges of the frame, giving the impression that characters’ lives continue when they’re not on camera, even as Alice’s seems to be closing in around her. Just as her kids look for ever-fainter signs of their mother behind those eyes, we lean in to watch Moore the actress turn invisible within her own skin.

Toronto Film Review: 'Still Alice'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2014. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A BSM Studio presentation of a Lutzus-Brown production, in association with Killer Films, Big Indie Pictures, Shriver Films. (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Produced by Lex Lutzus, James Brown, Pamela Koffler. Executive producers, Marie Savare, Christine Vachon, Maria Shriver, Emilie Georges, Nicholas Shumaker, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler. Co-producers, Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns, Declan Baldwin.

Crew

Directed, written by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, based on the book by Lisa Genova. Camera (color), Denis Lenoir; editor, Nicolas Chaudeurge; music, Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Tommaso Ortino; set decorator, Susan Perlman; sound, James Baker; supervising sound editor, Javier Bennassar; re-recording mixers, Leslie Schatz, Bennassar; line producer, Lynn Appelle; assistant director, Chris Carroll; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee.

With

Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.

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  1. Chris says:

    2/22/15 comment, “Vic” hit the Fluoride/Aluminum/Alzheimer’s nail on the head. A great movie but they don’t address why? The USA spends more money on ‘disease’ care than anywhere on the planet yet they’re the sickest in the world. Fluoride, Genetically Engineered food, 80,000 carcenogenic chemicals in products and the food supply. The typical response of “It’s Genetic” is correct but the chemicals and toxins are whats’ wreaking havoc on DNA to do so.

  2. Vic says:

    I just wanted to shed light on a disturbing connection the medical/scientific community is now making between fluoride and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that ingestion of low doses of fluoride increases the absorption of aluminum, which, as most of you know, is implicated in neural degeneration such as dementia and Alzheimers. And about 75% of American’s water contains this highly toxic substance, as it is added by public water treatment plants. Almost no media or political attention is given to this issue, though 97% of Europe has now banned the practice of fluoridation (or never began it in the first place), and it has officially been classified as a neurotoxin by Harvard and Lancet Neurology. Please educate your friends and family. And on a lighter note, phenomenal movie.

  3. Michelle says:

    The movie brings attention to this horrific disease. The movie was good, yet somewhat antiseptic. Having cared for a loved one with Alzheimer”s, the scene at the end of the movie is the reality of the disease just beginning to kick in. It begins with memory loss, but that’s the easier part. This disease is a steady, systematic decomposition of the brain while the person is alive. Every single body system is affected. Yet I have first hand knowledge that the person is still in there, even at the very end. As my loved one communicated through body language; and may not have remembered my name, but knew a loved one was there for her. Although I wish I was more knowledgeable to help her more. Most people just write victims of this disease off in the last stages, just thinking there’s no one left in there. Victims may moan, yet are in there, and need your compassion more than ever. If you’re a care giver, educate yourself. The line from the movie, “I wish I had cancer instead.”, is so true. Cancer elicits sympathy, and at least there’s a chance for remission. Not so with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is socially isolating; and once it takes hold, there’s no stopping it. Let’s all support scientific research to eradicate such a dreadful disease!

  4. John says:

    I just finished watching this very sad inspirational story. The movie was quite an eye opener of a victim of Alzheimer’s. It also projects a great example of the heartfelt upset of all who loved this person. Bravo Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin. I believe an Academy Award will be in order.

  5. peg malone says:

    when will still alice be released in albany,n.y.?

  6. SAM says:

    I cannot wait to see this film!! I cared for my mother for 10+ years with Alzheimer’s, until her last moments at age 85. It was hard, but we had many wonderful times too. The really h a r d thing is watching my sister, diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s at age 60 decline so rapidly. She has been actively supporting the the research to fight this devastating disease, since our father was diagnosed with Early Onset in 1984 & passed away in 1992. Now, she soon will be relieved of her suffering and we will miss her very much, but where will it strike next?

    • John Caro says:

      If the movie is half as good as the book it will be a hit. From your post it sounds like you are worried about getting it yourself.I have worked with dementia patients for over ten years now and I can tell you that fear speeds the course of the disease while a sense of humor slows it. Find something that makes you laugh out loud, I watch The Daily Show,or Bill Maher. Old Marx brothers movies are good too. The important thing is to let go of your fear and learn to laugh again. You will be much happier.

      • sparky says:

        Where is your references to back up your claims that worrying about it speeds up the disease while humor slows it? I think that’s incorrect. If the film is correct if you have early onset alzheimers it is rapid onset with no drugs to slow it down. It might be poosible to slow down other forms of the disease with drugs but imo humor won’t help. If I’m wrong site your reputible references.

  7. Nola Ruppard says:

    I Care for my friend of 32 years who was diagnosed 7 years ago. At 92 she is still going strong following a compression fracture of her spine last Autumn and a fractured hip, then a fractured pelvis (in 4 places). Her memory issue has helped her endure the pain and I have two other women who also help with her care.
    The disease is sometimes almost unbearable to deal with but most of the time she is so delightful to be with, that I forget she has Alzheimers.

    • John Caro says:

      I suggest you read “Anatomy of An Illness” by Norman Cousins. I was diagnosed with early onset AD when I was 48, it turned out to be a tumor but I made a study of AD and became a caregiver for dementia patients. I am a licensed massage therapist with special training in elder and Alzheimer’s care. I see the effects of humor on my clients everyday. When a person is first diagnosed they often become depressed and then the disease moves very quickly, if they can find a way to laugh the hormones released boost their immune system and AD is greatly slowed. Each case is different but all cases are helped by a good laugh. I wrote a book for new patients. You can find it on Amazon.

    • John Caro says:

      Living in the moment frees you from the past.

  8. Cathy says:

    My husband was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age 53. I also read and loved the book Still Alice. Although Alice’s disease progresses at an extremely rapid rate, my husband and our family are experiencing many of the same challenges, albeit at a much slower progression. We are 7 years into this nightmare with no clue how long we have yet to go.
    Can’t wait for the movie to come to my theater.
    My prayers to all persons and their families stricken with this horrible disease.

  9. Sunny Holloway says:

    Read the book years back as my sister had Alzheimer’s for 5 years till her death. It’s devastating to listen to someone who can remember things from 60+ years ago, but doesn’t know whether or not she had breakfast that very day. I shared Alice’s story with my Reading Group and intend to copy this film information for them (20 women) as well. Can’t wait to see the movie as the book was not only helpful and informative, but really GREAT. ..

  10. The movie Still Alice, sounds excellent. There is no date marked as to when this movie will be showing. Would someone please let us know?

  11. LOVED THE BOOK AND LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING IT.

  12. SKDogLover says:

    Sadly, like so many others, Alzheimer’s has affected my family. I read the book but not until recently and am not sure I will not be able to sit through the movie without bawling my eyes out. Mom has been gone for six years, her sister died from it seven yrs ago…and both maternal grandparents had what was only referred to then as ‘dementia’ (they passed decades ago). It is simply a devastating disease. Or course I worry if I am going to get it – so do my siblings and cousins.

    I would like to encourage EVERYONE to participate in any clinical trials – getting people to participate has been difficult for researchers. I myself will be signing up for the A4Study when I turn 65. Without research, there will be no cure.

  13. John Caro says:

    I was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s when I was 48. An MRI showed a massive brain tumor that was causing my symptoms. The tumor was removed 17 years ago but it was so large[more than one pound] that I still have severe memory loss. I looked for a book for patients but all I could find were books for caregivers. Then I found “STILL ALICE” it is the closest description of the experience I have found. Anyone who wants to know what it is like to develop dementia should read it. You can find it on ebay.

  14. Gary Bricker says:

    I have been diagnosed with “early onset” Alzheimer’s. I am 65 and have had it for a few years now. I am fortunate to have a lovely, caring wife who is my care partner. According to the Alzheimer’s Assoc. one American “gets” Alzheimer’s every 67 seconds! It has been found in people in their 30’s and even earlier ages. I used to be a high functioning transactional “transactional” real estate attorney (I never sued anyone – and have only been in a courtroom as a witness – so I considered myself “one of the good guys”). I lost 2 jobs in 3 years in that roll with companies that had a lot of real estate needs. This disease is going to decimate the Baby Boomer generation!! My wife and I have started a non-profit company to help create awareness – see it at: AlzAcrossAmerica.org

  15. SUSAN ELDON says:

    I cannot wait to see this film. Why? Because I watched my own mother disappear before my eyes slowly over the last 5 years, as I was her main caretaker. More people need to see this disease and understand how devastating it is not only for the person afflicted with this horrible disease, but also to the caregiver and the family. To make matters worse, the caregiver then worries if they will also be afflicted with this disease. More and more baby boomers are caring for their parents, and soon, some of those caretakers will need their children to eventually care for them, too…. and the cycle continues. I hope all reading this truly understands how important it is for EVERYONE to be more educated on Alzheimer’s as well as all forms of dementia, as it will soon enough touch everyone’s life.

  16. Tricia Adams says:

    When is this film going to be showing in the U.S.? Will it be a limited release here too? I am a caregiver for the elderly and have taken care of several people who have ALZ, at all stages, and worked on helping their families get through it, etc. “Still Alice” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It touched something inside of me in a special way and I think in some ways made me a better caregiver. I am so excited that this book has been made into a movie. I am always recommending this book to people to read. The one I had has been passed around to several people and hopefully still is! So many people don’t understand just what ALZ is, and getting the word out will help move things forward to finding a cure.

  17. Valerie says:

    When does this movie release in the U.S.? My mother passed away from Alzheimer’s last November and my sisters and I all read this book a few years back. Alice reminded me so much of my mother who was a professor her whole career, only to lose her prized intellect to this terrible disease. This movie has a great cast and I hope it does well at the box office as the general public has minimal understanding of how devastating this disease can be, particularly in early onset. Awareness is the first step towards a cure!

  18. Dede says:

    I loved this book! I cried thru all of it! My Mom has Alzheimer’s and the book hit home in so many ways! I cannot wait for the movie! ❤️❤️

  19. Pati Hoffman says:

    I had the honor of doing an interview with Julianne Moore when she began gathering information for this movie. I was in my early 50’s and it was a shock. The interview was an honor for me and I am sure it will be a fantastic movie! Thank you so much for reaching out to Early Onset Alzheimer’s !

  20. anniekautz says:

    I have watched my Grandmother, Mother in Law, Father, and currently my Mother suffer from the ravages of Alzheimer’s and it never gets any easier but I understand much better now how to get through each stage of this terrible disease without losing my self. My Aunt now has the disease (all on my maternal side) so it seems as if I may be doomed but at least my husband and my children have all experienced the symptoms and signs first hand so they will be able to help much more than if they had no clue. This will be a movie I definitely would like to see.

  21. LooksGood says:

    I almost started crying reading the review — but I like movies like this, indies (& foreign language) films where you learn something about people and places you don’t know and haven’t been. They’re good, and good for your mind and soul in a way blockbusters can never be.
    I’m in, but consider myself warned, will bring tissues. Thank you.

  22. Gayle Horton says:

    I am a Geriatric Nurse Care Manager and the book “Still Alice” helped me to have deeper insight regarding the person dealing with the disease. I will never forget the section about support groups, and Alice wanted to have her own support group. As a society we discount the patient’s feelings. As I visit my client’s who have Alzheimer’s disease, I know that there is a real person still inside.

  23. Opal Tipton says:

    My husband has Alzheimer’s. I read the book. At first it was so depressing to me as his caregiver. A good friend encouraged me to read it through and I’m so glad I did. It’s so true to form in what a person with Alzheimer’s goes through! I’ve gone through almost everything, maybe more than what this book entailed, with my husband. It’s hard to believe it was a book of fiction and not fact! Because to me……it was fact! I’ve been waiting patiently for this movie to come out! I think it’s going to have such an impact on the community at large. People simply think that it’s a disease of simple memory loss! Or even the cognitive loss! Believe me, it’s so much more! Until you go through it personally…..you don’t have a clue! Hopefully, it will be a wake up call!

  24. Beth Reinert says:

    Lisa Genova depicted the family dynamics of an AD diagnosis brilliantly. Her impressive research and own family experience with the disease is evident in her book, “Still Alice”. It’s an honor to have her represent the dementia community.

  25. mm says:

    I loved the book. It put a scare in me, thinking of what could happen to my parents or even me. I hope the movie lives up to the great book.

    • terry says:

      I read the book 4 years ago – when my wife was first diagnosed with the disease. She is now 58 years old and almost in stage 7 of the disease. I cannot describe the grief this has caused to our children – 35 and 27 years old – and to her mother who is now 80. I will not watch the movie, ever, because I live this nightmare every day. Her younger sister talks to me almost daily. The effect on families is HUGE.
      It has irrevocably changed my life. There will be cure for this someday – too late for her sadly.
      If any reader is starting on this journey, seek the love of friends and family – it is the only thing that will see you through it.

      • Opal Tipton says:

        I’m so sorry about your wife Terry. My husband was diagnosed 4 years ago also. I just pray that you and your children get through this journey. I fully understand living the nightmare. I can’t even attend a support group as my husband doesn’t want me out of his sight. I’m sure he’s in the 6th stage going to the 7th. It’s nothing I’d wish on my worst enemy. And you’re so right! The love of family and friends and your relationship with God that gets you through. And dad to say, we’re not through yet. Blessings to you and your family……

    • However unfortunate, no movie is “the book” and will never be reality. The most we can hope for is that the filmmakers has made a watchable, entertainment that will, eventually, show a profit in this money-hungry filmmaking environment.

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