You know the drill: another Oscar season, another heartstring-tugging film about fighting disease. “Still Alice” fits the bill for this year’s Oscar-bait, and, like this type of film usually does, comes out triumphant.

Still Alice

B+
Sony Pictures Classics
Michigan Theater


Linguistics professor Alice Howland’s (Julianne Moore, “The Big Lebowski”) concern over memory loss leads her to a neurologist, who, to her disbelief, sends her out with an alarming diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. For an academic whose work hinges on linguistic prowess and innovation, admitting that she “can see the words hanging in front of (her) but (she) can’t reach them” comes as a cruelly ironic jab. For what are we but the sum of our memories, each one bubbling up to connect with the next? Gone is her teaching ability, her concept of time. Even the sharpness in her eyes dulls to confusion. Revolving, out-of-focus shots blur more intensely as Alice’s mental acuity wanes. In the vulnerable time of her diagnosis, Alice must plan for a future she fears, all the while plagued with the realization that she has already reached her cognitive peak and will only sink downward. Rarely do we focus on how mentally taxing neurological diseases are on the perception of oneself and overall identity, and “Alice” does this well.

It could not do so without Moore’s performance, which is one that certainly lives up to the hype. Moore lifts what could easily be a one-dimensional character and, layer by raw layer, sculpts Alice into someone real. Alice’s transition from poise to forgetfulness isn’t a steep descent like she had predicted. Rather, it’s a meandering journey that takes her through denial, terror, love, concern, confusion and eventually, reinvention and reconsideration of her own identity. And as the film’s title suggests, Alice retains her intelligence, warm heart and strength, just in a different way than she had been used to before. Moore injects life into “Alice” with every woozy smile, anxious panic attack and vacant stare.

The family network backing Alice boasts strong performances as well. Her daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart, “Twilight”), argues with her for the independence to make her own life choices and pursue acting rather than attend college. However, Lydia’s weariness toward Alice’s parenting is lined with a fierce concern for her happiness. Lydia isn’t all annoyance, nor all unflagging support, but a lifelike blend of the two. Tentative steps to reach out sometimes work, but sometimes fall flat, and seemingly insignificant comments can spark argument. Stewart proves herself a remarkably diverse and mature actress with her work in this film. Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”) also demonstrates a slightly detached style of love and support wherein he genuinely attempts to comfort Alice, but sometimes misses the mark.

However, the rest of her family life, from a city brownstone apartment to a heritage-ridden beach house and well-dressed children who support her unconditionally, leaves behind an overly saccharine taste. Perhaps the idea was to show how much Alice has to lose as a result of her disease and that yes, there are cracks in seemingly picture-perfect lives, but it still comes off slightly akin to a Lifetime movie backdrop.

Though exciting, grandiose visions of escapism deserve their screen time, the sheer realism of “Still Alice” offers another important tenet of film: the wonder of seeing an ordinary life challenge reflected in art. Moore’s mind-blowingly vivid portrayal of a woman not only struggling with, but also bravely confronting her disease makes that happen.

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