At 50, Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, who won a Golden Globe for the role) is beautiful, articulate, accomplished — a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and the mother of three children. She’s giving a presentation on cognitive theory at UCLA when she stops, mid-sentence, her train of thought cut short. There’s an excruciating moment as she grapples with her own silence. “Word stock,” she says, finally. Circumlocution. Only later does she remember the word that’d ironically slipped her mind: “lexicon.”
“Still Alice,” the film adaptation of the novel by Lisa Genova, details Howland’s mental decline following her diagnosis with early onset Alzheimer’s. As with so many diagnosed with the disease, Howland at first manifests the symptoms of the disease in subtle ways — a slipped word, a missed dinner appointment. Missteps that’d pass for everyday forgetfulness.
Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland explore the woman affected by the illness — far from being purely clinical, the camera never regards Howland as a patient. Instead, it allows Moore to react: we’re acutely aware of Howland’s pain as she finds herself lost on a routine morning jog. The camera blurs, Howland’s breathing becomes ragged, a violin whines discordantly in the distance. The familiar is made unfamiliar. We’re afforded the opportunity to share in her panic and disorientation.
Howland’s illness touches the lives of her children and husband (Alec Baldwin) , and “Still Alice” provides a nuanced palette of reactions to the scourge of Alzheimer’s. Even as Lydia Howland (Kristen Stewart) is careful to grant her mother her customary autonomy, we’re aware of a tragic role reversal — Alice has become the child to her own daughter. Meanwhile, Alice’s other children grapple with the logistics of taking care of their ailing mother.
Through it all, Moore portrays Howland with a kind of steely resistance to the disease’s decline. She rifles through Lydia’s notes in an attempt to familiarize herself with her daughter’s passion for theatre. We see the plays: “Angels in America,” “Waiting for Godot,” the latter’s forgetful protagonist, Estragon, an allusion to the transience of memory.
In exploring disparate reactions to Alzheimer’s and allowing a gradual, unhurried study in character development, Glatzer and Westmoreland do justice to the Howland family. The decline of a human mind is made at once tragic and beautiful, a eulogy for remembrance. “Still Alice,” true to its name, pays tribute to the persistence of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable hardship.
“Still Alice” opens at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 16. It will open in Palo Alto at the Aquarius Theatre on Jan. 23 or later.
Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.