Still Alice Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Published Jan 22, 2015To be clear, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's identity drama, Still Alice, isn't a cerebral or particularly complex film. It's an exceedingly well acted and carefully compassionate TV movie with a higher than average production value. Their ambitions are limited (respectfully so) to presenting the onset and manifestation of Alzheimer's in a sincere, albeit superficial, manner, documenting the pain and horror of losing one's memories and, resultantly, a sense of self.
In a bid to add a bit of dramatic irony to a mostly linear, serviceable narrative, the protagonist — Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) — is a noted and reputable linguistics professor, a woman who prides herself on mental accomplishments and defines her ego within an academic framework. This adds a layer of complexity and concern to her Alzheimer's diagnosis, seeing as the very foundation her world is built on is rapidly unravelled.
The manner in which Glatzer and Westmoreland portray Alice's deterioration is careful and considerate. Moore, who is only less than amazing in roles that don't challenge her skills, is as convincing as she is heartbreaking, clearly internalizing the experience of her character and bringing that pain to the screen in a way that words could never communicate. But it's Glatzer and Westmoreland who balance overwrought emotional indulgence with the painful banality of it all. This isn't merely a series of high-level incidents documented in a manner that manipulates audience emotion; it's a thoughtful story of a person living with an illness outside of her control. There are good days and bad days, which are articulated in an increasingly erratic manner by a woman whose identity slowly slips away.
Now, knowing that Wash Westmoreland comes from a background of directing gay porn and that Richard Glatzer was a consultant on America's Next Top Model — their first feature film collaboration was on The Fluffer (high five if you've seen that one) — there is an inkling that Still Alice might have a higher purpose beyond its depiction of Alzheimer's. Obviously, Alzheimer's is what the movie is about, but much like Todd Haynes' Safe, which also featured Julianne Moore struggling with an illness, there's a sense that the concepts could be transferrable to other untreatable diseases, such as AIDS.
Interestingly enough, amidst the discussions Alice has with her family — her somewhat detached husband (Alec Baldwin), Type-A eldest daughter (Kate Bosworth) and more compassionate, free-spirited younger daughter (Kristen Stewart) — there's a lot of chitchat about the social component of illness. While it's a touchy comment, seeing as any terminal illness is horrible no matter what you make of it, the observation is made that it would almost be better if she had cancer, since people would be more compassionate and comfortable with supporting her.
Whether or not the intention to draw these parallels was intentional is debatable, but the language and content used do suggest that someone involved was drawing from a broader understanding of what illness can do to a person and their dignity. Even still, there are no efforts to present the internal beyond monologue, making Still Alice the sort of work that really isn't benefited by repeat viewings. It's successful for what it is, and is comfortable merely being a compassionate look at how quickly everything we've built for ourselves can slip away.