Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

Movie message that hits you like a freight train, not a train wreck (8/10)

AliceA conversational review:

Me: Mixed feelings on this movie, but I must say it was absolutely brilliantly written and executed. Probably the most economical, and for that the sharpest, treatment of the subject that we’re likely ever to see. Doesn’t it strike you personally?

It was both mercifully spartan and ruthlessly honest. I said to myself not to finish a couple of times. I totally received the message to my core… just thinking what it would be like for me to go through that with how thoroughly word centric I am, to lose all of that would be to lose who I am… I think. But the final scene with Kristen Stewart was goosebump city. The message is love persists.

And how I would feel such agony if someone I know and love were to have to go through all that. It raises the Problem of Evil argument vs. God to a whole new level. Wow. A tour de force.

Me: I’ve thought more about the movie since last night, and the perceived tragedy is that the Alzheimer’s was so early onset. Just think of my aunt Donna, her last year or two in the memory care unit, and I so clearly remember her concern that she never wanted to ‘lose her mind.’ If we live long enough, and they don’t figure out the aging disease (and we get thru the triage and there’s a bed for us), then that’s how we’ll all mostly exit the stage.

The movie just compelled me to face the question of whether ‘loss of mind’ = ‘loss of soul’ or loss of person. The person we know and knew as Donna was gone, or 95% gone–Donna did not have Alzheimer’s to my knowledge, simply cognitive collapse–, in those final two years (and I had the impression 75% of those in her final care location were 95% gone, too). It brings up a lot questions for me.

Also the scene where Alice is informing herself via a computer message of the suicide option, which frankly I feel would be immensely logical. I was sad along with her that she was foiled in that act of humanity. At the same time, I felt the resolution of the movie was perfect, as the beautiful poetic message from her daughter was perceived in the single word and emotion: love. And then you get into the question of eternity.

R: Alice Howland is a fictional composite, there is no family connection to the author; the book isn’t a memoir; it’s a novel.

Its author is a former Harvard neuroscientist who first self-published this book after 100+ rejections and against warnings that self-publishing would kill her writing career.    Two years later, it was picked up by Simon & Shuster, shot to best-seller list then became a movie

T: STILL ALICE, the book, totally gripped/riveted me from the first page – and it was a fast-moving read.  I had (mis)understood (or it had been (mis)represented to me) that the author was Alice’s daughter, and only when I “knew” that did I approach this book.   Each chapter brought with it some frightening episode so well-captured in words, easily allowing us to see OURSELVES in the enfolding days….. 

I can’t tell you how disorienting it was for me, how to totally cheated I felt, to learn in the Afterword, that my initial assumption that it was based on a REAL person and her stunningly quick devolvement into a nightmarish world (and her AWARENESS of it all throughout), that it happened to THIS PARTICULAR true person, was wrong.  Everything about the book totally flattened, just learning that all these things happened to a fictional, composite woman.  All intensity disappeared. 

I know my erroneous belief in no way minimizes the reality and ugliness of EARLY ONSET ALZHEIMER’S, not only to the victim, but her/his family…but in terms of a READING experience, it was essential for me going in that this character lived in this world and her daughter was writing about her.  That’s simply ME, appreciating/understanding/processing information through the lens I prefer most, and can see ‘clearest’ through, and is most satisfying:  True-Life.

Me: Yes, I totally understand what you mean. When I was watching it, I thought it was based on a true person, and that made a lot of difference to me. When I watched the extras on the DVD, they basically came clean and there was a woman who was sort of a model for her character. And this woman was at the beginning of the Alzheimer’s process. Like the speech Alice made.

Also, as good as Julianne Moore is, I didn’t feel she showed much sensitivity in the bonus feature interviews to the condition, it was only to be giving a good performance. Which I guess shows you what good acting can do. And good writing. I can’t imagine a better treatment of the subject because it just hammered me like a freight train [T: yes,me too, because early onset is especially cruel, happening right at the start of one’s really best years – and it advances with the speed of fire, that’s the really sad thing about it…..] with the immensity of the sadness here, but it was over in a heartbeat. I appreciate that, and it makes the impact that much more memorable.

R: According to [the author’s?] site, the whole idea was to present Alzheimer’s in a YOUNGer person, T: yes, another way of saying: author’s point was to present/or introduce to those who don’t know anything about, EARLY ONSET Alzheimer’s – which is what Janet Atkins (Kevorkian’s very first patient) suffered from. a heretofore high-functioning professional. And the additional point of THAT was to publicize that the GENE for it can at least be discovered and isolated, for purposes of not passing it unwittingly to one’s kids.

And this is what I think made this movie such a hit versus the many other Alzheimer’s movies out there like Notebook,  Away from Her, Iris, etc. etc.  – all whose female victims were elderly and probably “just homemakers.” Regardless the spin put on such previous stories, their elderliness alone is enough to distance audiences, or having seen a few, it’s like enough already, a little goes a long way, we all know how this ends…

So this was a different-enough approach to bring in new audiences, especially effective in this day of power-women. The differentiator here was her brilliant ‘ace in the hole’ plan…. the fact that it didn’t occur to her – smart as she was, prepped to the gills with all her Alzheimer’s research – that the illness itself would scuttle her noble gesture,  I had about as much interest in seeing this as I did seeing another holocaust movie i.e. NONE.  But unlike holocaust movies, Alzheimer’s is a fact of life so anything we know about is being forearmed.

Even though this was a composite character, I think the author’s input – as a neuroscientist in this very field – was invaluable (as was her choice of to do a YOUNG professional to begin with). I also thought Julianne Moore, regardless of her seeming distance in related interviews, focused exactly on the right stuff: to do a smashing job onscreen.  She’s like any other professional whose work would be compromised by getting too close to the ‘patient.’ By wrapup, she was wrung out; said it was the most challenging role of her career. 

PS: Kristen Stewart can act. She’s outstanding in her role as Alice’s daughter.

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