Still Alice (Glatzer & Westmoreland, 2014)

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would type: Still Alice (★★★) absolutely deserves an acting award, for Kristen Stewart.

That statement is not meant to denigrate Julianne Moore’s performance, merely to highlight that Stewart is the best aspect of this film. Moore is naturally very good (when isn’t she?), and while her performance here is not the best of the year (that is undeniably Marion Cotillard) and not even the best of Moore’s career (I’d say either Boogie Nights or What Maisie Knew), it is a nuanced and highly deserving performance which will finally win her an Oscar, even though it seems like this film was meticulously crafted for that specific purpose.

In order to ensure the success of winning that Oscar, the script does not tell a story as much as it jumps from one scene to the next, with each scene showcasing a big Oscar clip moment in Alice’s (Moore) mental deterioration due to her quickly progressing Alzheimer’s. The result is a fairly uninteresting script with the conclusion of most scenes being predictable as soon as they begin. Equally predictable is the arc of the film. When Alice, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, makes a speech about the babblings of infants being a form of communication only to forget the word, “lexicon,” it is instantly obvious in what condition her Alzheimer’s will leave her by the film’s end.

stillalice01If parts like that are too on the nose, they are matched by the obnoxious choices of directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Their decisions to use slowly spinning camera to highlight that Alice is lost and looking around helplessly, unable to recognize anything familiar, is unimaginative and badly overused. The frequent out of focus shots blatantly indicate Alice is unaware of her surroundings and unable to remember, but the recurring use of that technique wears out the effect those scenes might have had.

The dynamic between Alice and her family half works and half doesn’t. The attitude of her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is incredibly supportive and mostly believable, other than one out of place idea he insists on towards the film’s end. John and Alice have three kids, the dutiful and conceited oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), the underwritten and undeveloped Tom (Hunter Parrish), and the youngest of the family, the black sheep Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who left her family in New York to join a West Coast acting company. There is no doubt as to who will make the most sacrifices to care for Alice.

This review is sounding pretty negative, but I wanted to mention the several significant flaws of Still Alice before discussing its two saving graces. First, Julianne Moore elevates what is more or less a mediocre two star film about Alzheimer’s into a watchable film with her convincing and touching portrayal of a woman slowly losing her abilities. Secondly, Kristen Stewart owns every scene she is in, making me unable to dislike the film.

As Lydia, Stewart is fantastic at portraying the emotions of a slightly estranged child who does not see eye to eye with her parents. Her struggles with mild resentment, a desire for independence, and a wish to honor and care for her mother are deftly balanced by Stewart in what is my favorite performance by a supporting actress of last year. Her scenes are heart touching and beautiful; her occasional impatience, her quiet understanding, and her bonding with her failing mother all ring painfully true. As someone who has never had a close family member suffer from Alzheimer’s, I cannot imagine what it would be like to watch those scenes if one did.

And now, here’s another sentence I never thought I would type: there were three scenes in Still Alice which choked me up, and all three of them involved Kristen Stewart.

8 Replies to “Still Alice (Glatzer & Westmoreland, 2014)”

  1. Seannie5

    Stewart is a fine actress. I think she is going to have a very good career and leave a lot of the current crop in the shade. She is very serious about what she does and makes good choices, which is half the battle as an actress. I think she is interested in directing too.

  2. Andrew Spitznas

    I have to offer some substantial disagreement. For a film in which we know the general trajectory from the outset (folks with Alzheimer’s alas do not recover), I thought “Still Alice” managed to pack in a fair bit of suspense nonetheless. I was very much sold on how Alice’s decline and the family dynamics were depicted, including the hubby’s choices which I found to be completely plausible and in character from beginning to end.

    This was a 4 star effort for me. “Still Alice” lost a point for its occasionally overbearing and manipulative film score, and for the distractingly blatant product placement (yea, Apple!).

    • Evan

      I never really felt any suspense, but even though I always felt I knew what was coming next (she’s going to get lost, she’ll lose her place in the speech, etc.) the film certainly held my interest, but I attribute that more to the performances than the script or directing.

      SPOILER SPOILER

      I was sold on her husband’s choices until the very end, when he insisted on moving to Minnesota (or was it Michigan?) so he could take the new job. That entire scene played for me like he had forgotten how sick his wife was, not in that he wanted to move, but in the way he seemed to be in denial regarding her health as contrasted to the previous scene, which is why I found it more distracting than anything else.

      • kenmorefield

        It’s been a couple months since I saw the film (at TIFF), but I recall being pretty close to Evan’s take. In general, I’m a Moore fan, and it is hard to fault her performance here. I only really felt engaged when Stewart was onscreen, though. Perhaps that’s a script issue. There seemed stuff going on with the husband that the script didn’t have time or inclination to develop.(Or maybe that’s just critics reading into it b/c of Baldwin’s screen persona?) Because of the insistence in staying so firmly focused on Alice, the film felt a little confined, without a whole lot of places it *could* go. That kept me looking at the fringes, thinking more interesting stuff was going on there.

        • Andrew Spitznas

          SPOILERS AHEAD!

          It sounds like both of you struggled with the nearly exclusive Alice-eyed view of the film, which is cool. It just wasn’t an issue for me. The aspects of suspense within the inevitable decline (how long could she maintain her job, how would her family cope, what would happen to her pill stash) kept me on board.

          As far as her hubby, his move to Minnesota was morally unacceptable but completely understandable, given his character. From the first scene, we see how much he loves to talk shop, and how focused he remains on his work, even at home. He simply couldn’t cope emotionally with Alice’s decline, so an escape that he could rationalize made perfect sense.

          • kenmorefield

            Andrew, could you say something about what you mean by “morally unacceptable”? (It might be helpful, given the context of this blog, for some of us who self-identify as Christian to track your moral reasoning, if for no other reason than to avoid the easy cultural generalization that Atheists can’t/won’t make moral pronouncements.) I’m not entirely sure I agree, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s been months, and I may not be remembering the film accurately at this point.

          • Andrew Spitznas

            SPOILER warning again:

            Sure, Ken. And thank you for getting that generalization about atheism and morality out of the way. (Folks interested in exploring the relationship between atheism and morality could do worse than starting with the writings of philosopher A.C. Grayling or Peter Watson’s magisterial “The Age of Atheists,” by the way.)

            I consider the conduct by John (Alec Baldwin’s character) morally unacceptable because he is geographically and emotionally abandoning Alice at a time of great need. No matter what one’s worldview (theist or otherwise), I think there’s pretty much a universal embrace of compassion, especially compassion towards those who are unable to fend for themselves independently (children, the frail, etc.). In this respect, John totally screwed the pooch.

            This isn’t to say that I’m unable to empathize with John. I think he is loving and well-intentioned (I expect he was totally sincere in telling Alice early on that he would be there for her no matter what.) But it was definitely insensitive of him to start plotting a major move when folks with dementia like Alice are so dependent on familiar terrain to keep their tenuous grasp on the here and now. Even a cursory familiarity with materials from the likes of the Alzheimer’s Association would’ve made this clear to him.

            In that respect, I think he acted selfishly, but putting his career advancement ahead of his wife’s needs. (And I still do think much of this conduct was unconsciously motivated by his emotional inability to cope with a debilitated wife who could no longer keep up with him intellectually).

            Hope this wasn’t too rambling of a response…

          • Evan

            SPOILERS

            I’m not sure I’d say his wanting to move was morally unacceptable; I can understand how he might think the new job would help him care for Alice better. What bothered me was how he insisted on it even when the idea clearly stressed Alice immensely and was making her worse. Compared to the scenes when he supported her as they told the kids, helped her at the beach house, helped her in the ice cream shop, in that scene he just seemed like a completely different character, which is why it didn’t work dramatically for me.

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