Beau Salant ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Dr. Alice Howland, a professor at Columbia University, goes for a run one day around the campus she has worked on for the past few decades or so. But this time, she gets lost. Despite knowing the campus like the back of her hand, she does not know how to get back to her office. And from there, it’s all downhill.
Still Alice, from the directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is a short, small-scope, low-budget character drama that tells the story of an intelligent, accomplished woman (the aforementioned Alice, played by Julianne Moore) who, shortly after celebrating her fiftieth birthday, begins to show symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. What follows is a brutal, emotional rollercoaster of a film that delves deep into Alzheimer’s and refuses to hold back from showing the harrowing effects of the disease. In its short a hundred-one-minute runtime, the film pulls heartstring after heartstring as audiences are forced to watch the disease ruin Alice’s life and reduce her to nothing, as well showcasing the crippling effects it has on her family.
Moore, in a performance that is all but certain to earn her an Oscar for Best Actress, carries the film on her back. The film exists as a vehicle for her, and she delivers. What makes her performance so special is the way that the film approaches its topic. What Still Alice does, and does very well, that is different from other films about disease is portray the disease from the perspective of the person suffering from it. Everything happens inside of Alice. This demands a layered and complex performance from Moore who is there to rise to the challenge in every scene. What she does so well is portray the fear of the unknown—the fear of not knowing what she is going to lose next, not knowing what she will be able to remember when she wakes up the next day, or not knowing even when she gets up to go to the bathroom. The genuine reality and believability with which Moore portrays Alice’s fear and pain is, throughout the film, borderline terrifying.
Unfortunately, the emperor has no clothes when it comes to the rest of the cast, many of whom could have given these performances in their sleep. Alec Baldwin is solid as Alice’s husband, John, who painstakingly cares for her as her mental state deteriorates, but the role had so much opportunity for additional exploration that Baldwin chose not to go for. We simply see John react to Alice’s pain, and we never get to see the pain that John experiences on his own.Kristen Stewart is the best she has ever been in a film as Alice’s youngest daughter, but her trademark monotonous tone and facial expressions prevent her from exploring her character’s inner feelings as she is forced to cope with the slow loss of her mother. A more expressive actress could have been a real scene-stealer in this otherwise plum role. Lastly, a criminally underused Kate Bosworth does her best in an underwritten role, but she is unable to explore her talents because the script just doesn’t give her the chance.
As an overall film, Still Alice gets by. You won’t see it win any Best Picture awards, and don’t expect to see it on any critics’ Top Ten lists at the end of the year. The film has trouble deciding on a tone and often flip-flops roughly between scenes of heavy emotion and scenes of lighthearted back-and-forth between the characters. It leaves the film in the end with a somewhat hollow feeling, a feeling that the final emotional punch was never really delivered. The film is also a bit awkwardly paced, as it is never clear how much time passes with each time jump (there are quite a few), and this leads to some confusing encounters between characters and some actions that seem unmotivated as a result.
Ultimately, the draw to this film is Moore’s powerhouse performance. Watching this actress, a reliable presence on screen since the early nineties, at the top of her game in this phenomenal role is an absolute delight, even if the subject matter is quite depressing. The film becomes even more emotional and personal when you find out that co-director Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS just before production on the film began and had to use a text-to-speech app on his iPad to direct the film. Clearly, this is a film that will mean a lot to a wide variety of people, and one that should be experienced for the emotional resonance it procreates with every shot.
Overall Grade: B