The difficult part of making a movie about a disease and its effect on families is that there’s a tendency to overdramatize. What could be poignant often becomes overwrought and ventures into cable TV-movie-of-the-week territory. The actor who plays the stricken victim sets the tone for the rest of the cast, and if he or she goes too far over the saccharine line, there’s a good chance the co-stars will do the same.
Watching Moore forget a dinner date in her early stages, making a video for her future self to find one day, or struggling to locate the bathroom in her vacation home, we see how the disease plays out.
Thankfully, Still Alice features Julianne Moore, who deservedly won the Academy Award for best actress Sunday for her portrayal of a 50-year-old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a renowned academic who has successfully juggled her marriage, raising three children, and pursuing her career dreams. As she celebrates her 50th birthday with her family, Howland seemingly has succeeded at everything both professionally and personally. When she starts to consistently forget things and becomes disoriented when she goes running, she seeks medical consultation, which leads to the diagnosis of a rare form of Alzheimer’s that afflicts people at an earlier age. The disease is genetic, meaning that her three children have a 50 percent chance of developing the disease as well.
The film follows Howland’s digression over several years, which ends up creating a great vehicle for Moore’s versatility. Focusing on only one aspect could oversaturate the drama in the story and would force actors to be more one-dimensional. Watching Moore forget a dinner date in her early stages, making a video for her future self to find one day, or struggling to locate the bathroom in her vacation home, we see how the disease plays out.
We also see how it affects the family. Howland’s husband (played by Alec Baldwin) is supportive but starts to think about his own future and how Alice fits in. Youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is the only one of the three children who doesn’t learn if she is a carrier of the disease. Struggling to live up to her siblings, one a doctor and the other a lawyer, as well as her mom’s expectations, Lydia has a strained relationship with her mother. Alice wants Lydia to postpone her acting career and attend college, which is perhaps one reason why Lydia lives across the country away from the rest of her family.
The ensemble cast is solid, but Still Alice is clearly Moore’s showcase. While she has one major moment of sobbing in the face of adversity, it’s the more subtle moments of the movie that propelled Moore to Academy Award glory. Alice battles tirelessly to remember key facts about her life, and as she slowly loses that struggle, Moore aptly maneuvers through competency, bewilderment, and seemingly content ignorance.
Moore has long been an underrated, versatile actor, whether she’s performing in a Coen brothers’ film, deftly portraying Sarah Palin in the TV movie Game Change, or acting as the president in the latest Hunger Games blockbuster. While no actor chooses great movies all the time, Moore consistently looks for roles that take her into new territory. With another Hunger Games movie and a couple of independent films on the horizon in 2015 (most notably Freeheld), Moore should continue her run of great performances.
3 out of 4 stars. Still Alice is rated PG-13 for intense thematic material.