Most of us can't imagine having a disease that tugs and tears at the very threads of who we are. When we wake up in the middle of the night with outlandish fears, we strike reassuring bargains with ourselves: If I lose my sight, I'll still have music. If I lose my hearing, I'll still have color and light. If I lose both, I'll still know what flowers smell like.
But what if the person you've spent years becoming were to be locked away permanently in a body — your body — that's still thriving? In Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice, that's exactly what happens to 50-year-old Alice, an Ivy League linguistics professor — played by Julianne Moore — who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. In an attempt to accept the inevitable, she makes those reassuring bargains. By the time the inevitable happens, she won't even remember what they were.
Who is Alice, once she's no longer able to speak or recognize family members, let alone teach or read or, essentially, do any of the things that used to define her? The answer is embedded in the title of the film (which is based on a 2009 novel by Lisa Genova), and it's an indication of the movie's melancholy hopefulness: While Still Alice isn't exactly the sort of cheerful pick-me-up you'd seek out on a dreary January day, it's so fine-grained, so attuned to the prosaic nuances of everyday life even under extraordinary circumstances, that it doesn't register as depressing. The key, maybe, is Moore's performance, one of the finest of last year. (Still Alice opened in limited release, for an Oscar-qualifying run, in late 2014.) Moore maps Alice's gradual debilitation — or, rather, her awareness of her gradual debilitation — like a pioneer in a strange new land, watching the ship that carried her there slip away into the distance, a dot of meaning that soon will mean nothing.
But even if the ship is gone, the pioneer lives. That's what Moore ultimately conveys, the encouraging suggestion that our inner lives carry on even when our ability to connect with the outside world has dissipated. In the early scenes, we see Alice doing all the things that have shaped her life: When she gives a talk at UCLA, she's a confident visitor from her home turf, Columbia. At the podium, she's polished and relaxed and articulate, until she blips on a word, the kind of thing that happens almost every day to anyone who's hit middle age. As she flips through her mind's index cards for the term she needs — hastily covering for herself by making an awkward joke about having had too much Champagne the night before — silence hangs weightily in the room for seconds that seem like hours. She rights herself, and all is well, but we can see she knows something is wrong.
When Alice finally gets the diagnosis from her neurologist (played, in a small but delicately textured performance, by Stephen Kunken), she keeps it a secret from her physician husband, John (Alec Baldwin). In the most stunning scene, she wakes him in the night — the clock reads 1:42, marking one of those post-midnight moments when nocturnal fears suddenly become too mighty to bear — and breaks the news to him in a rush of anxiety dotted with scraps of irrefutable fact. Bleary from sleep, he tries to calm her, saying that he's sure it can't be as bad as all that. The moment, so deftly played by both actors, is potent in its very ordinariness, capturing the essence of a marriage in a snapshot.
Alice and John's grown children react to her illness in different ways: Son Tom (Hunter Parrish), studying to be a doctor, responds with helpless concern. Unassailably proper Anna (Kate Bosworth), who's trying to become a mother herself, seems eager to control the situation, as if that were even possible. Only the couple's wayward daughter, Kristen Stewart's Lydia, who has decamped to Los Angeles to attempt an acting career, is able to deal with Alice in her ever-changing here and now. What Lydia feels for her mother is a kind of exasperated compassion, and Stewart channels that beautifully: If she's adept at the nuances of eye-rolling, she's also able to pack a cosmos of empathy into a single glance.
Glatzer and Westmoreland — partners in work and in life who directed the 2006 Quinceañera, as well as The Last of Robin Hood, from 2013, a charming and overlooked picture about the final years of Errol Flynn's life — shape Alice's story with such delicate matter-of-factness that it never tips into Lifetime-movie territory. Their sensitivity toward the material may stem partly from the fact that Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, and the debilitating effects of the illness have begun to take their toll.
But the triumph of Still Alice is that it's not about an illness; it's about a person. Moore, with her dramatically fragile coloring and mother-of-pearl skin, may have the translucence of a seashell. But her Alice is never just a shell of a person. The human body comes in handy, because it's the thing we walk around in. But its chief job is as a steward of the secrets of the heart, and it would be hubris for any of us to claim we know their breadth.
STILL ALICE | Written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer | Sony Pictures Classics | Landmark