For several days after watching Still Alice, a tender and deeply sad adaptation of Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel about a woman living with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I caught myself scouring my everyday behavior for evidence of my own impending decline. Why couldn’t I remember the name of a familiar character actor when his face popped up on TV? (It turned out to be Zeljko Ivanek, whose name you’d think would be simple to remember, if not to pronounce.) What were my house keys doing in the dog’s empty water bowl? The degrees by which Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a linguistics professor who’s diagnosed at the shockingly young age of 50, becomes aware of her condition are gradual enough at first that blunders as small as this might matter. And Moore is so hauntingly good as Alice that, having spent the film’s swift-moving 101 minutes in her company, you can’t help feeling you’ve already walked some way down the path of dementia with her.
I didn’t yet know while watching it that the production history of Still Alice uncannily mirrors the film’s themes and story. The two directors, who also co-wrote the script, are married, and one of them, Richard Glatzer, was diagnosed with ALS shortly before he and husband Wash Westmoreland decided to adapt Genova’s novel—in fact, it was the shock of that diagnosis that prompted them to take on the material. During the filming, Glatzer’s condition deteriorated to the point of needing to communicate through a text-to-speech iPad app. The wisdom lent by this experience—of being a couple struggling with degenerative illness while collaborating on a film about that very subject—may be what gives Still Alice its quiet, unmelodramatic directness. Glatzer and Westmoreland don’t need to stack the emotional deck on Alice’s behalf or wring tears from the irony of a brilliant linguist’s cognitive decline. They just leave the camera on Moore’s beautiful but increasingly faraway face, and our tears come on their own.
Before Alice Howland’s diagnosis, she has just about everything a person could reasonably want from life: a tenured professorship at an Ivy League school, teaching a subject she cares passionately about. An adoring, successful research-scientist husband (Alec Baldwin). Three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart) who are all more or less happily making their way in the world. A Manhattan brownstone that’s pristine and exquisitely appointed even by the standards of Hollywood-movie brownstones. Alice has even lucked into whatever genetic oddity it is that creates human specimens as impossibly good-looking as Julianne Moore. But Alice’s lifelong luck is about to run out. A few days after her 50th birthday, she goes jogging on the Columbia University campus and suddenly gets disoriented. Standing outside the library she’s used for years, she can’t remember how to get back home—a fact the filmmakers establish not with dialogue or voiceover but through the use of unsettling music (the score is by Ilan Eshkeri) and shallow focus that turns Alice’s surroundings into an indistinguishable blur (the warm-hued cinematography is by Denis Lenoir, known for his work with the French masters Olivier Assayas and Jacques Audiard).
Still Alice’s script isn’t always up to the level of Moore’s performance, which is so profound and simple, so devoid of sentimentality or actressy self-regard, that it almost seems obscene to mention the word Oscar (even if I am now firmly on Team Julianne). The stages of Alice’s decline are sometimes too clearly signposted and foreshadowed, in a way that can make the audience feel we’re simply hunkered down waiting for the other shoe to drop—though to be fair, that faintly tedious sense of entrapment probably resembles the actual experience of loving an Alzheimer’s victim. There are breaks in the entropy, though, including one genuinely inspiring scene in which Alice, in the middle stages of her decline, is asked to give a speech for a gathering of fellow Alzheimer’s patients and their families. Having stubbornly insisted on preparing her talk according to the exacting linguistic standards of her old professorial self, Alice seems to have set herself up for humiliating failure. But the speech is an unexpected triumph—though Alice’s radiant smile at the enthusiastic ovation she receives is edged with sorrow. This carefully worded and painstakingly rehearsed speech, we realize, was intended as an official farewell to the mastery of language she once so effortlessly commanded.
As Alice’s mind begins to slip, her relationships shift in surprising ways. Her apparently stable marriage begins to reveals its cracks even as she grows closer to her youngest daughter, an aspiring actress who has disappointed her scholarly mother by flatly refusing to go to college. (Kristen Stewart, who I think by now has earned the right to leave Twilight associations in her past, is perfect as the rebellious and cranky prodigal daughter.) No movie that kicks off with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is going to have what you’d call a happy ending, but some late scenes between Moore and Stewart capture the way the disease, in stripping away the person you thought you knew, can reveal someone new and precious underneath. Near the end, Stewart’s Lydia, preparing for an audition, reads her mother a long, lyrical passage from Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. “What do you think that was about, Mom?” she can’t resist asking, in an attempt to get inside her mother’s increasingly foggy head. Alice takes a moment to find the word, but when she comes up with one, it’s le mot juste: “love.”