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Film in review – “Still Alice”

MV5BMjIzNzAxNjY1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDg4ODQxMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_What this movie does is invoke every experience you’ve had in dealing with loved ones suffering from dementia. That makes it a fairly powerful emotional experience in itself. But the film’s treatment of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and its effect on immediate family, deserves its own hearing.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is an intelligent, energetic, ambitious achiever, who, by age 50, has carved out for herself an astoundingly successful academic career as the linguistics professor for Columbia University who wrote the standard textbook in her field. Her professional presentations are sharp, articulate, personable and knowledgeable. She is not only a popular classroom lecturer, she is an in-demand guest speaker at national conferences and seminars. Not only that, she is an attractive, happily-married woman with three grown children, whose husband, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin), has his own very successful career in medical research. If you were to stop and ask her if she’s lacking anything, she would say, “Only more time in the day.”

But she’s about to have far more time on her hands than she would like. She first starts to notice something’s wrong when she gets lost on her daily run. It’s a route she manages without thinking about; the trouble is, she can’t seem to get her mind in gear right now. Then she experiences the dreaded gaffe during a lecture: A deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment when she loses her train of thought in the middle of a sentence. The first medical tests are inconclusive, but as she continues to experience memory loss, she persists in the testing and finally has a confirmed diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s genetic. It’s familial. She probably got it from her father, whom she long ago dismissed as a raging alcoholic who drank himself into oblivion, though now she’s reevaluating her long-held assumption (and judgment). And, she has to tell her children that they’re at risk, also, and it’s their decision if they wish to get tested or not.

The oldest, Anna (Kate Bosworth), decides to get tested, and discovers she has the damnable gene, but is determined to go through with her plan of raising a family with her husband. But even the birth of her twins becomes a bittersweet moment, as she wonders how long she’ll be able to hold up as a mother. The son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), refuses to be tested (and at first is in denial about his mother), while the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a determined under-achiever who won’t go to college and contents herself doing obscure theater work, isn’t at risk herself, but she’s the one who does the most to take care of mom as she descends into her darkness. Her dad wants to take that big out-of-town promotion which would further his career, all right, but also make him much less available to Alice, who’s now quickly spiraling downward. First she can’t conduct her classes any more and goes on leave from the university. But, she’s not going to return. She can barely remember who she is or who anybody around her is. She thinks something happened yesterday that actually happened last month. She can’t remember appointments or even to go her doctor (Lydia has to help her get there). She can’t drive and can’t be trusted to even leave the house by herself, for fear she won’t find her way back. It’s tremendously sad, and yet Alice continues to try to keep a positive attitude (other than a couple of notable meltdowns), as she inexorably becomes a mere shell of her former self.

Julianne Moore’s performance is well deserving of the Golden Globe nomination, but the script, which follows the book, is limited by stopping the story before things get really awful at the end, which makes the narrative frustratingly incomplete. But those of us who have lived through this with our own loved ones will definitely recognize the dynamics. And it will evoke some of our latent grieving, which isn’t exactly pleasurable viewing. But it does make us thankful that right now, at least, we still have our faculties, which means there is always hope.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.