'Still Alice': Toronto Review

Still Alice
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
This milestone film on Alzheimer’s draws its power from Moore’s emotionally restrained but very potent central performance

Julianne Moore plays a college professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in this adaptation of Lisa Genova's best-selling novel

With some five million Americans (and 36 million worldwide) living with Alzheimer’s disease, the warm, compassionate but bitingly honest Still Alice will touch home for many people. The toll the disease takes on the life of a brilliant linguistics professor is superbly detailed by Julianne Moore in a career-high performance, driving straight to the terror of the disease and its power to wipe out personal certainties and identity. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the screenplay is faithful to Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel which has a fan base of its own.

Rather than focus on the destructive effect of the disease on relationships, the drama dives deep into how one woman experiences her own deteriorating condition, placing all the emphasis on Moore’s face and reactions, her vulnerability seesawing with her strength. This insider’s account would be a tall order for any actor to fill without resorting to sentimentality or falling into the obvious, but she never loses control of the film for a second, with able support from Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as family members. The involvement of the Alzheimer’s Association and executive producing names like Christine Vachon, Maria Shriver and Trudie Styler will offer an additional leg up, although word of mouth should provide the strongest incentive for audiences leery of the topic.

Alice Howland (Moore) is a vivacious, charming 50-year-old New Yorker — a respected intellectual who is a precision communicator. Her loving husband, John (Baldwin), calls her the smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever met, and their three grown children — Anna (Bosworth), Tom (Parrish) and aspiring actress Lydia (Stewart) — are, if not success stories, at least making their way in life. Alice has it all — until she begins to forget words, which are her livelihood as a Columbia linguistics teacher, and worse, starts to lose her bearings in familiar places. She’s frightened enough to consult a neurologist who rules out a brain tumor, but hypothesizes early-onset Alzheimer’s, a rare form of the disease that strikes people under 65.

Alice’s first reaction is to hide it, but after getting confused about a dinner guest, she makes her husband privy to her fears. As her doctor tells them bluntly, her disease is genetic and the chances of their children contracting it are 50 percent. It falls on the family like a bomb, especially when one of the kids tests positive for the rogue gene. But this bad news is quickly sidelined by Alice’s own mental decline as the disease makes terrible, swift progress. While her family tries to cope with the situation, or miserably fails to do so, the cast’s ensemble performance brings out their true colors, including some surprising role changes.

Despite a two-hour running time, the drama is swift-moving, perhaps because the viewer dreads the disease's progression and wishes time would stop for poor Alice. But it doesn't stop, and step by step she descends the cognitive ladder, not suffering so much as struggling to stay connected. In one standout scene, she stumbles onto suicide instructions she has left for herself on her computer. Though this is one of the film's most intense scenes, the directors are able to slip in a moment's humor to lighten things up.

Not all is doom and gloom here. Another key scene has Alice invited to address an Alzheimer's conference. Her anxious preparations end in a triumphant monologue about her condition that is truly touching.

Westmoreland and Glatzer have created drama around the porn industry (The Fluffer), the Mexican community in Los Angeles (Quinceanera) and Errol Flynn’s last fling with a teenage girl (The Last of Robin Hood.) Still Alice has a concentration and urgency in the telling that the other films lack. Although not known for daring cinematic fireworks or experimentation, the directors tackle a subject where a restrained, understated approach is the best insurance against sloppy sentimentality. It pays off handsomely in the film’s closing moments, a poignant, poetic confrontation between the generations that draws the best from Moore and reveals unexpected depth in Stewart. The film's extremely personal feeling is surely related to the fact that Glatzer directed it while undergoing a health crisis of his own — after being diagnosed with ALS, he had to co-direct the movie on an iPad using a text-to-speech app.

Tech work remains humbly in the background, all in the service of keeping the spotlight focused on Moore and mimicking her feelings with an out-of-focus camera, costumes she no longer chooses herself and so on.

Production companies: Lutzus-Brown, Killer Films
Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Directors-Screenwriters:  Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Producers: Lex Lutzus, James Brown, Pamela Koffler
Executive producers: Marie Savare, Christine Vachon, Maria Shriver, Emilie Georges, Nicholas Shumaker, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
Director of photography: Denis Lenoir
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Costume designer: Stacey Battat

Editor: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Sales: Memento Film International/CAA (U.S. sales)

No rating, 99 minutes