An accomplished academic with a seemingly equally intellectually ambitious husband (Alec Baldwin) and three smart, attractive children, Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), the character at the center of Still Alice, appears to have won life. But after Alice celebrates her 50th birthday, things take a decidedly different turn for the usually in-control linguistics professor. She becomes forgetful — first missing a term in the midst of a presentation, then losing her way home while on a neighborhood jog. Alice knows something is wrong and, fearing a brain tumor, she seeks out the counsel of a neurologist. Turns out she has very early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Even worse, it’s genetic and she may have unwittingly passed it along to her kids.
We watch Alice lose some things — like a job at Columbia University, her command of the English language and a little of the respect of one of her daughters (Anna, played by Kate Bosworth). While Alice’s diagnosis puts a strain on her marriage (husband John has a difficult time watching his bright, beautiful wife struggle with daily life and is unwilling to take a hiatus from his career to do so), it ultimately brings her closer to Lydia (Kristen Stewart, who leaves the overdone angst and overacting of Twilight behind in this role of daughter and aspiring actress).
Like the Lisa Genova book on which it was based, the movie, which opens Friday areawide, centers on the unraveling of events (and life) from Alice’s point of view. We see her good days (giving an impassioned speech at an Alzheimer’s conference) and her bad (forgetting where the bathroom is in her own beach house). But we're firmly focused on Alice at all times and how her disease changes her cognitive abilities, perceptions and priorities. The way it affects her family is secondary, a perspective that, while it's somewhat unique and empathy-building, can also be frustrating. How Alice’s family wrestles with Anna testing positive to develop the disease or the fact that she could live another 30 years uncommunicative and needing expensive, specialized care is not fully addressed.
If the whole premise feels a bit like a Lifetime movie except that the protagonist never recovers, it is. The film easily could have become a piece of schlock but for the nuanced performances of Moore, and to a lesser degree, Stewart. Julianne Moore’s performance deserves all the praise it is receiving on the awards circuit and every tear you’ll shed in the dark theater.