TIFF review: Still Alice

What could be worse than losing the memories of one’s experiences? If a person is shaped by their experiences, are they still the same person once they lose those memories? A film that finds the perfect balance of exploring the perspectives of people both living through Alzheimer’s, as well as living with someone affected by Alzheimer’s, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s intimate and hopeful Still Alice tackles these questions with real wisdom and clarity, and dares to challenge one’s opinion of what Alzheimer’s really portends.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a professor of linguistics at the University of Columbia, an immediate pointer to how intelligent this woman is. The first moment where the audience becomes aware that something is off with her mental state is when she is giving a lecture to students, and suddenly loses her train of thought. Alice laughs it off, saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have had that champagne!” Another incident accentuates her lapses, when her son’s girlfriend visits for a holiday celebration, and Alice introduces herself to her twice. It’s only once Alice loses her bearings on a jog around her university campus that she starts to worry. Realizing something isn’t quite right, Alice visits a neurologist, who conducts memory tests (that also engage the audience, to make them aware of the holes in their own memory). He tells her that though it’s typically doubtful for a woman of her age, there is a possibility that she may have Alzheimer’s.

Alice accepts this news with dignity and proactivity, and shows how resourceful and high functioning she can still be. After being dismissed from her station at Columbia, she finds new ways to challenge herself, creating a memory quiz for herself on her iPhone to complete every morning. And, after some time, she gives a lecture about living with Alzheimer’s (a truly moving speech that pulls the audience into the head of someone who has to live with the disease), where she highlights the words she has spoken, so as to not lose her place as she reads aloud. While Alice has approached her current situation with bravery and gusto, her husband John (Alec Baldwin) nominally accepts the gravity of what this means, but struggles with denial as he thinks she is slipping away from him. When Alice goes for a run and leaves her phone behind, she is unable to receive reminders from John, and misses dinner plans with friends. He is reluctant to accept that things are going to change, and still believes that everything can be perfectly managed, berating her for leaving her phone behind. This conviction persists, and as he is still an ambitious, career-driven man, he flirts with the possibility of taking Alice away from their home and moving out of state to pursue a promotion. Alice continually pleads with him to take a sabbatical year, certain that the amount of time when she will be coherent enough to really enjoy their life together is short. But the call of this promotion is too seductive for John to resist, and their daughter Lydia moves back home to become Alice’s primary caregiver.

Kristen Stewart, also magnificent in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria this year, provides excellent support to Moore’s Alice, and in a film that did not already have a powerhouse like Moore, she would be best in show. As Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia, Kristen Stewart plays an aspiring actress who moves away from her family in New York City to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. One gets the impression that Lydia has not been as close to Alice as her siblings (and, as her siblings have pursued careers in law and medicine, Lydia makes the least sense to Alice), but she is the child who best understands how to accommodate and support Alice. In one dinner scene, Alice is intent on entering the date of one of Lydia’s performances in a play into her phone. Her elder daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) thinks this is futile, and that Alice shouldn’t need to feel pressured to have to remember one more thing that they can already worry about for her, but Lydia argues that there is no harm in letting her do something to make her feel better in that moment. In defending her, Lydia shows herself as the only family member who is sensitive to Alice’s need to still be as independent and high functioning as possible. Lydia seems to be fully aware that Alice is not and does not need to be treated like a victim, and is not keen on feeling the need to start treating Alice any differently. Another key scene takes place after Alice’s husband John suggests that Alice should read one of Lydia’s favourite plays, so that the next time they’re together, they’ll have something in common to talk about. As she’s up in Lydia’s room, along with a copy of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Alice finds one of Lydia’s old journals. Once she discusses the play with Lydia, Alice accidentally drops a piece of information that Lydia never told her, alerting Lydia to the fact that Alice read her journal. She feels invaded, and is critical of Alice’s choice to do that. Just because Alice has Alzheimer’s does not mean she is suddenly a saint, and Lydia is not inclined to start treating her like one. But in one really moving scene that is among the best parts of Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart’s performances, Alice confronts Lydia, telling her that she remembers Lydia was angry with her, and though she cannot remember why, she wants Lydia’s forgiveness. Theirs is a relationship that highlights the importance of forgiveness, reconciliation of resentment, and the possibility of two apparently different people finding common ground, and the film is as affecting as it is because of such exploration.

Still Alice is proof of the fact that one’s identity is so innate that not even one’s loss of memory is enough to take that away. It shows there is still room for families to have meaningful experiences with their affected loves; a compelling promise to the families of and anyone living with Alzheimer’s that it’s not a life sentence of a condition: Still Alice is a real beacon of hope.