Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Columbia University, the author of a book on speech development that serves as the standard text all over the world. Early in Still Alice, the movie adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel, we see Alice at a dinner celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and two of her three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Anna’s husband Charlie (Shane McRae). The only one missing is Lydia (Kristen Stewart), an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles. Amid the restaurant chatter, Charlie makes an offhand comment about childhood squabbles between Anna and Lydia, to which Alice retorts, “No, my sister and I were very close, actually.” When she realizes her mistake, she shrugs it off with a laugh: “I don’t know why I said that.”
Later, delivering a guest lecture at UCLA, she speaks smoothly and easily—until she suddenly halts mid-sentence, unable to think of the next word. She flounders ruefully before finally making an awkward substitution: “…the word-stock of a given language.” Later, on her way to to visit her daughter Lydia, she remembers the word she was looking for: lexicon. A world-famous linguist and she can’t think of “lexicon”; this is something Alice can’t shrug off.
Nor can she ignore her terror days later when, midway through an afternoon run around the Columbia campus, where she has spent a major part of her life, she stops, lost and confused, looking around the walks and buildings as if surveying the alien landscape of some strange planet. She knits her brows and squints her eyes, as if she might somehow wring the knowledge of where she is from her resisting brain, and we see Alice’s anguish in sharp focus against a blurry and indistinct background.
A consultation with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken) and a series of tests bring bad news: Alice has early-onset Alzheimer’s. In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, what troubles Alice most is not her own plight, but the knowledge that this rare form of Alzheimer’s is hereditary, probably inherited from her father—and that she may have passed it on to her children.
Still Alice is written for the screen and directed by the team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and the two men carefully avoid the weepy grandstanding of disease-of-the-week Lifetime Channel melodramas. The movie’s low-key naturalism imparts a deeper and more compelling drama (non-“melo” variety) to the progress of Alice’s disease and the effect it inevitably has on her family, her career and her entire sense of herself.
Julianne Moore’s performance naturally anchors the movie, and this least actressy of actresses is, at this writing, the odds-on favorite to go home with the Oscar later this month. If that happens, it will be a tribute to the subtlety and texture she brings to Alice as she feels herself inexorably sliding from invincible confidence to the bewildered insecurity of a woman who gets lost on her home campus and, months later, can’t find the bathroom in her own house (“I don’t know where I am!” she sobs). From an assured public speaker who needs no notes to one who (addressing an Alzheimer’s association) must read her speech carefully, highlighting each line as she goes so she won’t read the same line over and over again, who asks and re-asks and re-re-asks questions that have already been answered.
Alice’s family flounders almost as much as she does, as bewildered, and sometimes angry, at losing the woman they know as she is at losing herself. At one point, in a striking scene, Alice tears the kitchen apart in the middle of the night, searching desperately for her cell phone; John has to calm her and lead her back to bed. Immediately following is a scene between Alice, John and daughter Anna; John finds his wife’s phone in a cabinet, and Alice exclaims, “I was looking for this last night!” John turns and whispers to Anna, “That was a month ago.”
It’s a startling moment because we too thought it was the night before. In many small and subtle ways like that, Still Alice gently escorts us into the world of a woman whose world is slowly and sadly abandoning her.