Still Alice, Toronto Round-Up

Still Alice is a 2014 drama film, based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name. The film stars Julianne Moore in the titular role of Alice, a Columbia cognitive psychologist diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alec Baldwin plays her husband John. Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish play her children Lydia, Anna, and Tom. The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival this week.

 

There are serious maladies that will leave you weak, physically diminished and at your worst, a shell of your former self, but there are few diseases as cruel as Alzheimer’s. An unstoppable attack on memory, it gradually strips away the accomplishments, life events, family members, loved ones and more from the mind until nothing is left. It removes a lifetime of knowledge and independence. It’s heartbreaking and vicious, reducing sufferers into ghosts of who they were, both to themselves and to their family. And so, it’s potent stuff for a family drama, and while “Still Alice” is respectful about the subject matter it tackles, it’s to such a degree that the earnest film never lands with greater impact than a well-meaning informational pamphlet.

Julianne Moore plays the titular character, who is hardly the face of what many would associate with an “Alzheimer’s sufferer.” A professor at Columbia, respected academic, devoted wife and loving mother to three children, from almost any angle her life is put-together and perfect. But following a handful of worrying mental lapses, Alice visits a neurologist and is soon diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. And just when things don’t seem like they could get any worse, Alice learns she has a rare form of the disease that’s genetic, and it may have been passed on to her children.

Based on the book by Lisa Genova, and adapted by writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, a potentially rich backdrop is established for this story to play against. Alice’s children are all building careers — Tom (Hunter Parrish) went to med school, Anna (Kate Bosworth) to law school, while Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is on the west coast following her passion for acting — while her husband John (Alec Baldwin) has an opportunity at the Mayo Clinic that would be a major step. But Alice’s condition puts a question mark on any long-term planning. And unfortunately, the script never lets these threads and conflicts extend or unfold beyond the most cursory approach.

When John wants to move to Minnesota with Alice for his potential new job, separating her from her children (including Anna, pregnant with twins) and the home and neighbourhood she still knows, even as her memory fades, she’s upset. But this conversation and sequence about the transition lasts one scene. The tension, anxiety and fear by Alice’s children who may have inherited a frightening medical legacy is concluded in one cell phone call. Moore gets exactly one scene in which she breaks down in tears, with the filmmakers more interested in depicting her deteriorating state. Indeed, it’s a little curious that such a well-regarded teacher and lecturer (who has talked all over the world) has no friends or colleagues stopping by or checking in or her. Or conversely, that she doesn’t reach out to anyone beyond those in her immediate family. Is it out of fear or shame? The movie has other concerns on its hands — namely it aspires to be instructive first, dramatic second.

It’s not a surprise to learn that Genova herself is a neuroscientist, as “Still Alice” often feels quite clinical. It’s a bit of a lazy contrivance that both John and Alice are doctors (she teaches linguistics, changed from psychology in the book), and this leads to more than a couple of discussions in the film about symptoms, the details of early onset Alzheimer’s, the diagnosis and more that often feels unnatural or designed as a knowledge dump. And there is a slight remove from the challenges Alice faces, as while the disease is no less devastating because of it, her very healthy financial situation is a far cry from many who suffer from the disease. With the ability to pay for medication, get the best care possible, live in her own home, and have children around her who are also well off (well, except for vagabond Lydia) and can help as well, this story is not a reality for the average person. That strain of caring for someone when finances and resources are hard to come by is an additional difficulty with its own set of problems, and the film’s desire to be relatable is undercut by the distance the characters are from how most people live.

But it’s difficult to be hard on a movie that means so well and is executed with honourable, if completely bland, precision. Moore gets the showcase part, and does her usually strong work with it, but the rest of the supporting cast isn’t given much to work with. There is a missed opportunity in exploring John’s feelings more, seeing the love of his life become unrecognizable to him and herself, their entire lives together erased from the mind of his wife. Meanwhile, the daughters and son come in when necessary, though Lydia does become more involved as Alzheimer’s progresses in her mother. But it’s not quite enough, as decent as Stewart is in the part.

Competently directed, and delivered with the expected emotional beats, “Still Alice” achieves its modest goals, but one wishes it had a grander vision. Certainly, Alzheimer’s is devastating, but it’s also messy, complex, and confusing for everyone touched by it, and it’s that kind of grit this film needs. She may still be Alice, but the life she knew, and that her family knew, is ruptured irrevocably. And that sensation never quite gets transmitted in the film. At one point, Alice delivers a speech about living with the disease, reading it from a printout, and highlighting each line so she doesn’t get confused or lost along the way. In the midst of her talk, she accidentally drops the pages from the podium and they scatter on the floor, leading to a moment when it looks like her careful planning may not have worked out. But she gathers them back up, gets composed, and continues where she left off. The better movie would’ve left those pages on the floor and seen what happens next.

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