For any family touched by Alzheimer’s disease, the impact is severe, the outcome inevitable, and the loss profound. How tragic when the connection to memory severs; how devastating to watch a loved one slip away while wanting to help so much.
Still Alice thoughtfully explores how this devastating disease can wipe away layers of recollection to render a victim a stranger, even within herself. While other movies that explore the disease may focus on big events this crippling experience can prompt, Still Alice shines in its detail of the seemingly simple alterations that, sadly, add up to tragic outcomes. While we see few big scenes of despair, or loud moments of anguish, moviemakers Richared Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland carefully unpack the situation to reveal the real change that such a major event creates.
When we meet Alice – beautifully portrayed by Oscar nominee Julianne Moore – she is a respected professor at Columbia, a devoted mother to three children, and a patient wife to a self-centered husband. Her memory loss seems minor at first, a word she can’t find, a name she can’t recall, only progressing to a point of concern after she works through all the logical reasons of what could be happening. But she’s still herself during these early stages, aggressively using her academic skills to learn everything she can about the possibilities, patiently teaching herself to remember specifics, and consistently trying to protect her family from the damage she fears may be real.
But Alice can’t continue to hide the inevitable and, as her family becomes aware of her memory loss, they retreat into their own expressions of grief. This is where Still Alice effectively separates itself from other films about this illness. We see the strengths and weaknesses of each primary relationship in this lady’s life as each member of her family struggles to accept her fate. For her husband, the disease becomes an inconvenience, an obstacle to manage so his career can progress without interruption. For one daughter, denial becomes a detour in her own plans while, for the other, time becomes precious as she tries to share as much as possible with her mother. How the film explores these relationships – and the different roles Alice plays in each – enables us to know a special woman who brings a unique brand of bravery to each challenge.
Moore makes this journey so subtle that, only when we reach the film’s end do we fully realize how the actress alters her behavior. This exceptional performance avoids the temptation to exaggerate; instead Moore keeps this battle within. Kristin Stewart also offers a layered performance of truth and grace as Alice’s daughter while Stephen Kunken makes us believe in her physician’s insight. Only Alec Baldwin rings false in a performance that recalls the other self-absorbed men he portrays on small and large screens.
As Alice continues to disconnect from those she loves and what she knows, we experience the depths of tragedy this disease can bring. Still Alice makes us want to help those impacted by Alzheimer’s disease by reminding us that, no matter what may happen to the people we love, they need us more than we realize.
Film Nutritional Value
* Content: High. This sensitive exploration of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease helps us learn what we can do to support those who face this challenge.
* Entertainment: High. Thanks to the lovely performance from Julianne Moore, and strong support from Kristin Stewart, the film reaches beyond its somber narrative to affirm what family members can mean to each other.
* Message: High. Still Alice reminds us the importance of unconditional love within families as it explores how family members can make a difference when illness strikes.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about such a devastating medical reality can be worthwhile.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children can use sharing this film to initiate meaningful conversation about how family members can support each other no matter the situation.
Still Alice is rated PG-13 for “mature thematic material.” The film runs 101 minutes.
4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
Behind the Screen
Reel Lessons About Physical Challenges
The emotional resonance of The Theory of Everything continues a movie tradition of celebrating the lives of people who overcome physical challenges to succeed.
The portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) brings to mind the film biography of the man for whom the disease is referred, baseball player Lou Gehrig. On its surface, Pride of the Yankees – the 1942 film that tells Gehrig’s story – could be viewed as a “bio pic” designed to pay tribute to a popular hero. Such approaches were common when the film was made. But Gehrig gets more than the standard treatment as Pride of the Yankees traces his personal journey to confront the devastating impact of this progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the body. When Gehrig contracts the disease in the 1930s, few understand what it is, how devastating it can be, or how far its ultimate outcome can reach. Only when he confronts the severity of his situation does he resolve how to live the rest of his days. From that conviction comes the inspiration that reaches across the screen.
The Miracle Worker – from 1962 – takes us into the world of Helen Keller starting when the girl becomes blind and deaf as an infant. Today, parents could reach for many resources for a child stricken in this way. But little is available to help Helen and, despite the love and support of her parents, her future looks dim. When her parents engage a teacher of the deaf, Annie Sullivan, little do they know they open the door to Helen’s discovering the keys to a memorable life. While other families confronting this situation, at this time, might institutionalize a child, the Kellers strongly believe that something can be done. Out of hope or guilt or simple stubbornness they insist that Helen live as natural a childhood as possible. In Annie Sullivan, they find the ideal partner, a woman who balances her passion with her persistence.
Forrest Gump has a lot of potential, too, despite his limitations. He is so filled with positive thoughts that we can’t get enough of his positive energy. As created by Oscar winner Tom Hanks, Forrest is one of the happiest people we could meet, despite his challenges to learn and accomplish. What he may lack in conventional intelligence he more than overcomes with common sense and an instinct to always look for the positive. Forrest Gump teaches us about the joy anyone can experience, inspires us to look for what is good in our lives, and entertains us with the adventures of a joyful man. That Forrest always anticipates the next sunrise gives us a sense of hope, too. If, at moments, the film is almost too sweet to be believed, then it’s just right for the subject. A bit of goo on the movie menu never hurt anyone. Just don’t have it every day.
The moving story of a disfigured man struggling to build a life fuels the compelling narrative of The Elephant Man from 1980. Set in 19th-century London, this study of mistreatment and misunderstanding teaches us that only when we look beyond what we may first observe can we actually see what’s inside someone’s soul. Based on the life of Joseph Merrick – renamed John in this telling – the film takes a literal approach to the story in a detailed recreation of the period and the personalities. John Hurt’s dark interpretation of the character helps us imagine what a life confronting such challenge may be. Director David Lynch – making one of his few studio films – brings his independent movie mindset to a story that could have emerged as conventional and contrived. Because Lynch searches for the darker side of the material, he reveals the realities that deformity can bring to life.
Dustin Hoffman brings the challenge of autism to the screen in Barry Levinson’s Oscar-winning Rain Man from 1988. With Tom Cruise on board for box office appeal, Levinson examines the realities of a complicated relationship between siblings that is defined by incidents long denied. Always an actor who commands the detail of a character, Hoffman explores the day-to-day challenges that an autistic man must confront, from trying to be patient during challenging situations to attempting to justify his routine to a brother who prefers to disconnect. What makes Hoffman’s approach so interesting is how he never tries to secure our sympathy for the character’s climb; his matter-of-fact performance lets us know that this man is comfortable in his skin no matter how challenging the journey.
The Theory of Everything continues a cinema tradition of celebrating how people overcome physical and emotional challenges. At the movies, we can meet people who make us want to live richer lives. And Stephen Hawking is one of them.