Our personalities change so gradually that we rarely pause to consider what it is that constitutes our identities. “Still Alice” forces us to tackle these questions; the film revolves around its main character being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While the film is not particularly impressive, the themes that it explores are worth the time and consideration.
The film opens to show us Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), one of the nation’s most renowned linguistics professors, struggling to find the right words. She recognizes something wrong with her day-to-day functioning and is, eventually, diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film largely focuses on the interactions between Alice and her family as the disease progresses. Her husband, John Howland (Alec Baldwin), becomes progressively distant while her children, Tom (Hunter Parrish), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) all experience different reactions. There is a particular focus on the relationship with Lydia, who is an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles, leading a very different lifestyle from her siblings who possess stable careers.
By the nature of the dilemmas associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the film is very much a process in which the audience, along with Alice, wade through questions of identity and the importance of memories in creating an identity. There are many scenes in which Alice contemplates and discusses the values of her memories. The force of these considerations is only accentuated by the fact that the character is a linguistics professor with impressive knowledge of the brain – she knows exactly what is happening to her, but she is powerless to stop it.
However, instead of allowing the audience to truly engage with the film in a personal exploration of the nature of identity, the screenplay, at particular moments, becomes overbearingly overt in its theme. The natural structure of the film’s plot is one in which a highly accomplished individual begins to lose their memories, but some of the cliché, blunt dialogue does not seem to respect the audience enough to assume that they will come to considerations of identity on their own. The film is simply too melodramatic, making it difficult to take seriously at times. Because the film’s basic premise is such a tearjerker, “Still Alice” needed more work to have a chance at displaying some cinematic sophistication.
The film is not simply a philosophical exposition attempting to explain identity. It is also a piece which analyzes the effects of this disease, and thus also the changing of one’s identity, on the victim’s relationships. The film observes that as Alice’s personality deteriorates, so do many of her past relationships, while others change for the better.
While many of the film’s aspects do not mesh, the most important component, Julianne Moore, is its best. Moore delivers an absolutely heart-wrenching and entrancing performance as Alice Howland. Many tragic accidents instantly transform an individual, but disease triggers a gradual change. It is this progression that makes the role of Alice of difficult, and Moore excels in portraying this. Alice must first engage in the frustration of her diagnosis as well as the strains it places on her family. As the film continues, though, she incrementally must lose the vast memories, knowledge, and intellect that she possessed prior. Moore is phenomenal as she gives off less and less of the original character that viewers encounter in the first scene.
Moore’s supporting cast was simply levels below her own performance. While she was in most scenes, this disparity was, at times, distracting. Alec Baldwin does a decent job portraying the distant and seemingly cold husband figure. While Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish have simple characters that did not seem to draw any great effort from the actors, Kristen Stewart’s role is more complex. While it is still difficult to forget that she starred in “Twilight,” Stewart does well enough to support Moore, so it seems the young actress is undeniably getting better.
Despite Moore’s stellar performance, the rest of the film’s production and acting seems to hover around mediocrity. While “Still Alice” does not impress in most respects, the ideas that it forces us to grapple with make the film one worth seeing, even if they were not conveyed particularly well.