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.