With a stark, unvarnished take on its subject matter, Still Alice is an unsentimental look at a woman diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. For Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a linguistics expert, there is no sign of hope or last-minute miracle, just a steep descent into a dark future.
Still Alice works in its sense of structure. We see Alice repeat her routines, whether it’s jogging around Columbia University or moving around her house, until she hits a point where she can’t do an activity. As Alice becomes aware of her condition, she begins a series of exercises to try and cover for gaps in her memory, until they overwhelm her and she forgets the activities even exist.
And as Alice’s life disintegrates, her relationships with her husband and children shift in unexpected ways. Plans that Alice and her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), rely on their relative independence and their careers, which John refuses to delay. Because her particular strain of Alzheimer’s is hereditary, her relationship with her children also changes, with one daughter growing closer as another becomes more distant.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that Alice isn’t the most sympathetic character. She can be cold and stubborn, and her disappointment with youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is barely concealed. What makes her work is Julianne Moore, who uses her subtlety to full effect here. There’s little in the way of histrionics from Moore’s performance. Early on in the film, we see Alice recording a video for her future self, and when Alice reaches the point of opening the video, we see the message: not some warm and fuzzy reminder of better days, but a cold, methodical, step-by-step process for committing suicide. In the hands of another actress, scenes like this could easily be overacted. With Moore, though, there’s a fierce self-determination that comes through.
The ultimate subject of Still Alice is what gets left behind when everything that we use to define ourselves disappears, a piece at a time. At the end, the title seems less like a statement than a cruel question.