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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Still Alice - A Film Review

I saw a great but heartbreaking film last night, Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and based on the novel by Lisa Genova. Julianne Moore played Alice, a Columbia linguistics professor who has been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's. She was magnificent in this film. Alice starts out as witty and extremely talkative, and begins to have momentary lapses where she forgets a word or repeats a question or can't remember something from a minute ago. As her forgetfulness and confusion progresses, she goes for testing by a neurologist, and the worst comes true. It is devastating when she realizes she has this disease. When she cried to her husband, "It feels like my brain is dying!" I felt gutted inside.
The film was a realistic and honest portrayal of life with Alzheimer's. The film felt very intimate because it focuses on Alice and her immediate family: her husband (Alec Baldwin), and her children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Kristen Stewart). Alice is a brilliant woman who prides herself on her intellect, her knowledge, her use of language, and building a meaningful life with her family, and the disease is so unfair as it robs her of her memory, her autonomy, and her hard work. The neurologist states that often times, brilliant and highly intelligent people people are more prone to the disease due to overworking on the brain, having a higher memory reserve, and not getting treatment when memory lapses because they assume it's just middle age. She even says she wishes she had cancer instead, because it isn't as shameful or as embarrassing.
The film had an understated pace, where there weren't any screaming matches, no heavy Oscar-bait moments of hysterical scenes, no abandoning of Alice by family members, or tacked-on happy endings. The film was about a family's struggle and understanding of the disease, and respecting Alice while trying to manage the rest of their lives. Life goes on as one daughter gives birth to twins, the father is offered a job opportunity in the Midwest, and another daughter struggles to succeed in an acting career. I agreed with a criticism by Peter Debruge in Variety that the audience gets a sense that life continues on outside of the scope of the scenes, as the year progresses and Alice becomes a shadow of her former self. She, the esteemed linguistics professor, now can barely say a coherent sentence or get out the right words to say what she wants to say, and it's emotionally frustrating for her. Alice's transformation is heartbreaking to watch, and Moore's performance is subtle and gradual in portraying Alice's mental and emotional decline. 
The major cast standouts apart from Moore were Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart. Baldwin was touching and sympathetic as her caring husband who was keeping his devastation to himself while losing Alice, who was as intellectual and career-driven as he was. In his eyes, there was hurt, confusion, and sadness as his wife was losing her memory reserve and brilliance. And Stewart delivered a raw and honest performance as the wayward daughter, who seemed at first emotionally distant because of her choices to forgo school and live on the West Coast for an acting career, but surprised the family by stepping up and being there for her mom and getting past old wounds. She was remarkable in this role, and belongs more in character-driven indie dramas than blockbuster films.
Julianne Moore appeared at the screening to introduce the film, so I got tickets for myself and a friend to see it together. She is absolutely stunning in real life, with shiny red hair, gorgeous fair skin, a big smile, and was wearing this really pretty and stylish black blouse that looked cool on her. She is personable and funny and intelligent. She spoke about the film, her introduction to considering a film acting career via Robert Altman films, seeing a double feature of Straw Dogs and Emmanuelle when she was younger, and her research in studying people with Alzheimer's. I really hope she is nominated for an Academy Award for this. I don't know the other actress competition, but she greatly deserves an Oscar by now.
I really felt for this film, and not because Moore was there to introduce it. I nearly cried a few times, it was just emotional and hard to watch sometimes. I don't have direct experience with Alzheimer's (a great-aunt had it, another great-aunt has dementia), but I feel for anyone who has it or is close to someone who had it. It is a devastating disease, and I hope one day there will be a cure.

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