TIFF Review: 'Still Alice'

Still Alice
(USA, 99 min.)
Written and directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Julianne Moore continually amazes me. Moore delivers a one-two punch at the Toronto International Film Festival this year with the go-for-broke craziness of Maps to the Stars and the emotional wallop of Still Alice. It’s impossible to compare the two performances or say which one deserves to bring Moore major kudos at the end of the year. They both do. Each turn sits on opposite poles of the scale for award-season friendliness, but together they show that Moore remains at the forefront of her craft, pushing herself and breaking barriers for actresses as she shows that no role is off limits. She’s the acting champ of TIFF this year.

It helps, too, that her utterly devastating turn as Alice Howland, a psychology professor who experiences early onset Alzheimer’s disease, comes in one of the sleeper hits of the Festival. Still Alice is an emotional force of a film first and foremost thanks to Moore’s subtle, heartfelt, and immaculately empathetic performance. Every slip of Alice’s memory and every glimmer of confusion are palpably clear. Expect to have your heart torn to pieces.

The film brings to the screen the popular and acclaimed novel by author/neuroscientist Lisa Genova, and the film adaptation captures much of Genova’s remarkable ability to convey the complexities of Alzheimer’s largely thanks to Moore’s performance. Alice, a psychologist who focuses on the way language interacts with the mind, loses herself to the disease at a startling rate. At first, a pause muddles one of the tour-de-force lectures that are the hallmark of her academic career, but Alice then becomes lost while jogging her everyday route. She forgets things too much for it to be fatigue. For a woman who has built a career on language, losing the ability to choose one’s words is a step towards self-annihilation.

Genova’s novel has the advantage of written language to articulate the slips and fuzzy patches Alice experiences as her brain turns to mush. Genova casually replaces a specific word with “thing,” or she repeats passages to show Alice’s loss of short-term memory, which in turn puts the reader in the anxiousness of Alice’s situation as he or she flips back through the pages with a frustrating sense of déjà vu. It’s an awful feeling to lose oneself, even for a moment.

Still Alice marks a fine adaptation of Genova’s novel, for Glatzer and Westmoreland faithfully translate Genova’s grasp for language and her salient ability to convey in accessible terms the range of devastation that Alzheimer’s brings to effected parties. The film makes few significant changes to the novel, save for a switch of the Harvard setting to New York, although its crucial reveal of Alice’s “Butterfly” folder shifts the emotional payoff of the novel elsewhere in the film. Still Alice, the film, reveals immediately the contents of the file for which Alice tests her mental capacity every day. Genova, on the other hand, slowly erodes Alice’s conception of herself by interspersing the novel with Alice’s daily mental exercises that grow imperceptibly shorter as the book progresses. The film does this instead by adding a running game in which Alice and her daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) play word wars on their phones and Alice’s words become shorter, simpler, and non-words at all.

The tests build to a reveal that carries significant emotional consequences. In the film, however, Alice explains all at the outset. The emotional crux thus shifts elsewhere in the story. Fans of the novel shouldn’t be disappointed, though, because Glatzer and Westmoreland’s terrific adaptation of Genova’s beautiful novel still reaches an extreme emotional catharsis. Expect to get Fault in Our Stars level sloppy with tears in this one.

Still Alice, the film, requires Moore to externalize most, if not all, of Alice’s suffering. Moore avoids tics and hysteria, and instead finds Alice’s humanity and grabs hold of it as Alice at first saves face to avoid stigmatizing her illness. As Alice’s Alzheimer’s becomes more severe, though, Moore makes Alice profoundly human as she refuses to let go of the life that is being wiped away from her like marks from a chalkboard. She becomes angry, confused, sad, and alone. The range of Moore’s performance does justice both to people experiencing Alzheimer’s (praise is equally due to Glatzer and Westmoreland’s direction) and to the audience who needs to appreciate, feel, and, above all, understand Alice’s experience. Comparisons to Julie Christie’s equally strong performance in Sarah Polley’s Away from Her seem inevitable, but both performances testify to the psychological and emotional complexity of the disease with her distinct approaches the actresses take towards forging their unique characters.

Still Alice also makes a tenderly poignant study of the way the disease seeps beyond Alice and into her family itself. The film realistically conveys a family dynamic in which family members take different approaches to illness with some offering compassion and others rolling their eyes in annoyance at the burden that is to come. Take Alec Baldwin’s compassionate yet oblivious turn as Alice’s husband, or Bosworth’s feisty turn as Alice’s eldest daughter, Anna.

The heart of the film, though, is Alice’s relationship with her daughter Lydia. Lydia comes vividly to life thanks to Kristen Stewart, who, like Moore, is easily a champ of TIFF 2014 thanks to her equally strong performance in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Stewart grows Lydia from a self-involved flighty artist into a compassionate maternal figure, eager and willing to return the love her mother gave her as a child. Stewart arguably gives her most emotional and vulnerable performance to date. Her final monologue, in which she recites to Alice Harper’s final monologue from Tony Kushner’s Angles in America, is one of the most heartrending scenes you’ll see this year. Stills Alice responds with Moore’s finest scene of the film, which totally submerses Alice in her disease but brings to the surface the one true element that cannot be forgotten in a parent-child relationship: love.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.

UPDATE: Sill Alice opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Jan. 30, 2014