3 Stars — Thoughtful
What makes a person who they are? Is it the collection of memories that reflect the choices and relationships of their past, or is it the love they experience even when memories are no longer accessible? In other words, do we lose who we are when we struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, or are we still ourselves at a deeper spiritual and relational level? Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland thoughtfully and emotionally explore this question in their film Still Alice.
Based on a novel by Lisa Genova and adapted for the screen by Glatzer and Westmoreland, the film allows us to walk with Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) when at 50 years of age she begins to notice symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s. A brilliant linguist who is a professor at Columbia and world-renowned for her ability to understand and articulate language acquisition, her intelligence allows her to cover up her symptoms until the disease has noticeably progressed.
Unnerved by her impairment, Alice hides her fears and initially goes to her neurological consultations alone, even when she is asked to bring a family member with her. We soon understand why she is hesitant to bring her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), into her pain. Ambitious and self-absorbed, John still promises to be with her and help her fight her disease. Although he clearly loves Alice, he soon finds himself withdrawing and turning toward his own career goals rather than giving himself to her in her hour of need.
Also taken on this unexpected and unwanted journey are Alice’s two daughters and son. Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is a physician who understands all too well the meaning of her diagnosis. Her older daughter, Anna Howland-Jones (Kate Bosworth), is focused on starting her own family while her younger daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is an aspiring though still unsuccessful actress. Having never outgrown their sibling rivalry, Anna and Lydia are unable to set aside their issues in their mother’s time of need.
It is the struggle between family members that gives movement to the tale as the spouse, siblings and family share the journey Alice is forced to take.
There are many decisions and choices to be made but the family has no spiritual, relational or moral guidance or support in navigating their path. Seemingly without close friends and certainly without a faith community, Alice’s seemingly rational decision to end her life lacks a deeper sense of the morality or implications of such a decision on those she loves. Though there is no faith evident in Alice or her family, the story proclaims that the basis for life is found in love and that message alone touches upon the spiritual and transcends any mental abilities or ambitions or achievements.
Worth noting is the use of focus to tell the tale. This cinematic technique that allows us to empathize with the fuzziness of Alice’s brain is supported with visual messages of waves, snow, woods and white screen. Both these visual techniques and the scenes of the family’s conflicted relationships help the audience emotionally identify with Alice and begin to experience the sense of separation and isolation of someone living with this difficult disease. How we continue to express love to those who can no longer remember or communicate is the challenge for anyone who loves someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
» It is difficult to imagine our own minds betraying us. What would you do if this disease impacted you or your loved one?
» Early onset Alzheimer’s disease accounts for less than 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s patients and can occur from age 30 to 60. Testing is available to discover a genetic connection in familial Alzheimer’s disease. Lydia decided not to be tested while her sister and brother decided to do so. Would you want to know if you had this genetic abnormality, or would you wait to see if it developed? Why would you make the choice you did?
» Alice makes the statement that she would rather have cancer than Alzheimer’s disease. Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.