Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning portrait in Still Alice of a college professor who learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. Don’t let the bleak subject deter you from watching this compelling film. It is compassionate, moving, and well told. Ms. Moore has also won Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA awards for her performance as well.
A strong narrative buttresses the story of Alice Howland’s illness and its impact on her family. Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, and ably directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice opens by establishing the high-functioning world of a renowned linguistics professor who teaches at New York’s Columbia University, has raised three children, and enjoys a happy marriage to John Howland, well captured by Alec Baldwin.
The Howlands’ two daughters, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), have a frequently fractious relationship that is believable and interesting. Also engaging is Alice’s tendency to pressure Lydia into going to college instead of pursuing the acting career that has taken her to the West Coast. We see Alice at work in the classroom, spending time with her husband, and interacting with her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) as well as her two daughters. Her life is rewarding and accomplished.
The early symptoms of Alzheimer’s emerge gradually and with appropriate subtlety. Anyone who has reached midlife can appreciate Alice’s lapses in memory — forgetting a name, getting disoriented while running — even though she is barely 50 years old. Before sharing her worries with her husband and children, Alice takes herself to a neurologist (Stephen Kunkel), who eventually makes the ominous diagnosis.
Ms. Moore brings a sweetness and calm to her frightening condition as it develops. In one scene, she wets herself when she can’t find the bathroom in her own home. She forgets about an important dinner date with John and his boss. Her students complain about her mental lapses in the classroom. It takes her three days to craft a short speech her doctor has asked her to give to an Alzheimer’s support group. Demonstrating that she is no milquetoast, Alice argues with John when he appears not to take her anxiety seriously early on, and she impatiently cuts off a Skype session with Lydia while rehearsing her upcoming speech. Hysteria and melodrama have no place in this well-written tale. While the focus stays on Alice, the film shows how each member of the family copes with her growing disability. The form of Alzheimer’s she suffers from is genetic, which means her children stand a 50 percent chance of contracting the disease. Without becoming didactic, Still Alice does an excellent job of explaining how Alzheimer’s develops, and what the effects are on the family and the larger community of the victim.
Still Alice, Friday March 6 at 4 pm, Sunday March 8th at 4 pm followed by a discussion on Alzheimer’s with the Healthy Aging Task Force, at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For information and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com.