‘Still Alice’ Is the Story of a Mind in Search for Words and Self

Julianne Moore's luminous performance as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's reveals how the disease makes it difficult to find oneself.

More than once, the camera follows Alice (Julianne Moore) in Still Alice. It walks along behind her in a university hallway, lockers lining the walls. It follows her she goes for a run in New York City, the sidewalk stretching before her. It follows her as she makes her way down the stairs in her own Upper West Side home, on her way to the bathroom. In these and other moments, the camera hovers behind Alice, her red hair bobbing in frame, her slender figure in motion, increasingly hesitant.

At first she strides confidently, en route to a lecture she’s delivering at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Back home, jogging near Columbia, where she’s a renowned professor of linguistics, Alice loses her way, and the camera stops wither, then circles her as she stands, daunted, face flushed, breathing heavy. It’s at this point, just a few minutes into the movie, that you’re aware — both before and along with Alice — that something is very wrong. As many viewers know ahead of time, she’s afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s, a terrible disease in any circumstance, and poetically, tragically cruel for her, a specialist in communication who prides herself, even defines herself, by her articulation, her intellect, and, of course, her memory.

That she is unable to remember where she is, or, in yet another instance, when she is unable to find the bathroom in her own home, the camera keeps a bit of distance, observing as she descends the stairway, pauses, opens a couple of doors. When her husband John (Alec Baldwin) finds her, she’s stopped, frozen. The camera pans down as if with John’s view, to see that she’s wet herself. A cut back to her face shows it wet and red, lost again, in another way.

The losses with which Alice struggles throughout Still Alice have as much to do with her relationships, so profoundly predicated on memories. She has three adult children, worried and devoted according to their own capacities: her oldest, Anna (Kate Bosworth), is distracted by her new pregnancy with twins, vaguely sweet Tom (Hunter Parrish) seems mostly to follow her lead, and the independent, stubborn child, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who makes her way back from California where she’s pursuing an acting career, is a little predictably the one who most understands, who forgives and gives to her, a roiling font of generosity, first by Facetime, and then, increasingly, face to face.

Alice’s face, at first, reveals infinitely, and the film makes the most of Moore’s luminous pallor, focusing only on her during an early consultation with her neurologist (Stephen Kunken), or in a mirror that provides for multiple reflections (a striking if overstated set of images) .As Alice’s face becomes more opaque, as she’s harder to read, her face shows that too, her search for a response, her effort to perform correctly, to know where she is and who she is. Her changing relationships — with the kids and John, with colleagues at school and her students — initially form new memories, but these are memories that, as Alice points out ruefully and sometimes gratefully, she will lose almost instantly.

The film, however, preserves these new memories, as well as others, for you. You see home movie footage, Alice and her sister as children, red-headed and blond, the grain approximating 8mm (code for “memory” in movies), the piano tinkly. You see students, framed at a distance, whispering about her in the lecture hall. You see her department chair, gazing sadly into the camera and so, her eyes, expressing his condolences. And you see a family discussion of what to do, at a table a full two rooms away from Alice: as they talk, small in the distance, the back of her head large, taking up most of the shot, still and still, very red-headed.

While Still Alice occasionally overstates, relies on its melancholy soundtrack or those home movie-style flashbacks, it can also be delicate, even brilliant. In this moment, when the back of Alice’s head is at once evocative and elusive, you might imagine what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, what she’s imagining. Your own work here is key, as your fear matches hers. When at last Lydia asks Alice to describe what she feels, to say “what it’s like,” she has an answer, for you: “On bad days,” she says, “I feel like I can’t find myself. I’ve always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation, and now sometimes, I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them and I don’t know who I am and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next.” If these words are too perfect, written and performed by those who can still find words, they’re also approximate, and hang in front of you, signs of what you can only imagine.

RATING 6 / 10