by Brian Surber
It’s always interesting to see a movie that has a “front-runner” status; when you head to the theater because the movie or someone in it seems destined to win an Oscar. All your attention seems to be focused on that one aspect of the film. Some movies are brilliant enough on their own that you start to forget about the reason you went to see it and begin to be blown away (Whiplash, for example). Others are less engaging and the only thing holding you to the film is said performance (The Blind Side). Still Alice is an interesting film in that it does not fall into either category. It comes with the prestige of getting its star Julianne Moore her first Academy Award, but the film isn’t great enough to stand alongside her performance nor is it weak enough to solely rely on it. There is something missing in Still Alice. It features a duh-incredible performance from Ms. Moore, its deals with a heartbreaking subject with wonderful sensitivity, and sheds light on a terrible disease. But watching the film you can’t help but feel the flaws and they can’t help but hurt it.
As it says inevery review for this film, Julianne Moore gives a brilliant performance. As Alice Howland, a successful linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore gives an almost stubborn quality to the role. Her Alice knows she is intelligent and thrives off her intellect. So when she learns that her mind and therefore intelligence will slowly drift away she can’t help but feel as though she’s been defeated. Desperately trying to hold onto her sanity she refuses to give in, even though she knows she will soon have no choice.
A speech that Alice gives a third of the way through the film is one of the most powerful scenes of last year. In this speech Alice can breath and talk about her new reality in a safe environment and she let’s go the only way she knows how; by reading her delicately crafted speech that bluntly deals with her situation. Moore is easily one of our most under-appreciated actresses: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Far from Heaven, The Hours, Children of Men, A Single Man, The Kids Are All Aright, Still Alice; she’s never won an Oscar. She’s about to.
The supporting cast doesn’t really stand out in the film aside from the fact that Kate Bosworth’s character, the eldest daughter, is presented as an awful human being and Kristen Stewart is very good as the recluse youngest child. Bosworth’s Anna is annoying, snooty, and incredibly rude. It’s a really shocking choice to have her or a character like her in the film at all. Stewart on the other hand gives a touching performance as the distanced daughter. Her mother wants her to go to college and she wants to be an actress, but all she really wants is her mother’s support. The turn her character takes toward the end provides a tender sense of duty one feels for a loved one. But the film is really Moore’s show.
The film is directed by real life partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and they carry the film with a deep sensitivity that radiates from the screen. Glatzer is currently living with ALS and at times during filming could only communicate though an application on his phone. The real life connection of fighting a disease while trying to maintain a family is clearly felt. Camera movements are subtle and the duo use hard focusing to capture the feeling of being lost and alone in your body.
They also wrote the screenplay and while the film deals with some very serious issues that Alzheimer’s disease brings up, it’s also the screenplay that weakens the film. Matters involving when to leave your job, when it’s not safe for you to be alone, and how/when do we move on are very interesting subjects the film deals with. A sequence early in the film when Alice must inform her children that they have a 50/50 chance of having the disease is especially heartbreaking.
The film however doesn’t feel full. Time moves too quickly, weeks and months go by from scene to scene making the film hard to follow at times. The lack of well-developed supporting characters, outside of Stewart, makes it hard from the audience to care much about the family outside of Alice. And the film seems to have a hard time knowing where to end. Maybe that’s because the film doesn’t want to say that Alzheimer’s disease patients’ lives end when their mind is “gone,” and that’s a noble goal that the film suffers for. Instead of ending the story at a natural point (I don’t want to pretend I know where that might be), the film seems to be compelled to have something incredibly meaningful to say at the very end. The issue is the film doesn’t need to. It says plenty and does so with grace. Attempting to end the film on a blunt message feels so forced and is incredibly unnecessary.
Still Alice is a good film telling a worthwhile story. What the script lacks in character development and structure hurts the film but not enough to derail it. Thanks to Julianne Moore’s spectacular performance and a very important subject matter Still Alice is able to stand on its feet. It’s a film to see not only for the sure-to-be Oscar-winning performance, but that’s easily the best part.