A mind is a terrible thing to watch waste away, and rarely has the horror of losing one's inner self to Alzheimer's disease been conveyed as precisely and powerfully as it is in Still Alice. Pictures such as Away From Her and Amour have covered some of the same thematic ground, but those films told their stories from the point of view of a mate forced to watch the person closest to him or her fade away. One of the distinctions of Still Alice is that we watch the awful process unfold through the ever-less-comprehending eyes of the central character herself.
One of the few locks in this year's awards race is in the Oscars' Best Actress category. Virtually nobody questions the inevitability of Julianne Moore going home with a little gold man as a result of her work in this film. She's won everything in her path so far, and for a very good reason: a very good performance.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor celebrating her 50th birthday as the movie opens. Her life initially sports an as-good-as-it-gets luster. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), is an equally driven research physician. The couple has three children: Tom (Hunter Parrish), a medical student; Anna (Kate Bosworth), who's pregnant with twins; and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who's taking a stab at acting in LA. They're so cultured and articulate, they could be the perfect family in one of Woody Allen's New York movies.
But they aren't. They're the not-quite-perfect family in a picture written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (Quinceañera), based on Lisa Genova's 2007 novel. When Alice wakes John up in the middle of the night to tell him she's been forgetting words and becoming disoriented on campus, and fears the worst, he assures her things aren't as dire as they seem. No matter what, he'll be there, he says. As Alice's worst fears are confirmed, the film offers a study in the way life goes on, and even caring family members can become distant in the face of illness.
Still Alice avoids toppling into Lifetime movie territory by being brutally honest about such matters. Alice wants John to take a year off so they can squeeze the most out of her months of diminishment, but he's drawn to a distant professional opportunity and makes excuses. Two of her children haven't a clue how to help as the disease robs them, with shocking swiftness, of the mother they've known. They shut down, convincing themselves that their father knows best when he makes arrangements with an assisted-living facility.
Stewart's character has better instincts, but only marginally more success. Backstage after a performance in New York, Lydia soaks up her mother's praise — only to realize that Alice thinks she's a young actress she's never met. The movie is filled with details and observations that impress as chillingly spot-on.
The most heartrendingly impressive aspect of all, of course, is Moore's transformation. She turns in a masterful performance, generally using little more than her face to suggest the relentless devastation that's taking place in Alice's brain. I can't imagine how she did it, but the actress employs carefully charted changes to the brightness in her eyes or the slackness of her mouth to convey the extinction of a person fighting to remain present and losing ground by the hour. All the hair and makeup wizardry in the world couldn't produce that effect. What Moore achieves is an infinitely more special one.
(Editor's note: Still Alice begins its run at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington on Friday, February 13. The 7 p.m. show on that day will be a $15 benefit for the Vermont chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.)