After what she must have thought was years of badgering by yours truly (and she would probably be right) Anahita finally agreed to show us some films at movie night. Her first was Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland‘s 2014 film Still Alice, which earned Julianne Moore an Oscar for Best Actress.
Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a Columbia University Linguistics professor whose diagnosis of familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease drives the narrative, or what there is of it. To be honest, there aren’t a lot of plot points in the film that don’t revolve around the (to my eyes impeccable) portrayal of Alice’s decline into the cognitive limbo of her disease, but such as there are, I’ll try to touch on them. The decline itself, however, is relatively predictable. We begin pre-diagnosis and watch Alice giving a linguistics lecture in which she begins to lose some of her words. It’s the kind of thing you would chalk up to something like fatigue when it happens once, but she predictably begins to have more and more issues and the diagnosis and progression of the disease (which is terminal with a prognosis of only a few years) go pretty much as you would think. What’s left over are a few details and the effect that the situation has on her family.
Alice’s husband is presumably a research-oriented physician, and for the majority of the movie he’s the squeaky-clean Dudley-Do-Right of the couple – patient to a fault, supportive, paint him as sympathetically as you can imagine. At the end of the film, he finally comes off being a bit selfish, accepting a position at the Mayo Clinic at a point in the depths of Alice’s disease where it would be something between cruel and impossible to move her from New York to Minnesota.
In addition to her husband, Alice has three children. Her eldest daughter Anna is a lawyer who is pregnant with twins. The middle son Tom is a med student who seems to tear through girlfriends at an alarming rate, and Lydia, her youngest daughter and the focus of most of the familial angst is an aspiring actress. Anna and Tom play fairly small roles in the film, though we do learn that Anna tests positive for the early-onset gene (her twins and Tom test negative, and Lydia declines to be tested). Lydia, largely due to her mother’s disapproval of her shunning higher education in favor of joining acting troupes, is the Cordelia of the family – both the most belligerent and the dearest. (Apologies for the Lear metaphor should go out to Anna and Tom, who certainly do not go full Regan and Goneril on the family.)
One of the major subplots is Alice’s private determination that she does not want to burden her family. She hides a bottle of pills in a drawer, and creates a video for herself, instructing her on where to find them and how to take them when the time should come. She has written a quiz for herself on her iPhone with questions like “What is your youngest daughter’s name?” The idea is that she incorporate her cognitive test into her daily activities, and the instruction to watch the video comes in the form of “if you can’t answer these questions, go watch this video”. Unfortunately for her plan, Alzheimer’s steps in and she loses the phone before she is in a position to fail the test. Eventually she does accidentally discover the video, but at this point she is far enough in decline that she is unable to carry out the suicide (if she even understood that was what it was).
In a really effective scene, at some point deep into Alice’s decline her husband wakes her up in the middle of the night to usher her out of the house and it’s not entirely clear what is going on until they show up in the maternity ward. The audience gets a little bit of confusion, just a taste of what it must be like to be Alice – we ourselves had more or less forgotten about the pregnant daughter at that point. Alice gets to hold her grandchildren, and from there the movie fairly quickly moves on to her husband relocating to the Mayo Clinic and leaving Alice under the care of Lydia in New York.
Still Alice certainly has some missteps – the treatment of the husband’s career is particularly filled with this sort of “I bet that’s what science is like” scenes. I can’t imagine a real scientist sitting at the kitchen bar, reading the title (just the title!) of a paper on his computer, and saying, “Welp, apparently the last five years of my lab work was a waste of time!” As we all know, if a publication states something contrary to what your lab generally finds, number one you probably peer-reviewed it, and number two if you didn’t, you’re going to look as deep as possible for reasons to tear it apart, not just throw your hands up in surrender. (I suppose you could try to be gracious and say he was scooped, but that really wasn’t the vibe they gave at all.) Furthermore, we all know how academic appointments are – you accept the job…you might start in a year and a half. With all of the two-body problem solving going on, the idea that the Mayo Clinic absolutely won’t take into account this guy’s family situation and allow him to postpone the appointment long enough for Alice to either pass away or for them to find a reasonable way to move her to Minnesota is laughable. “Sorry honey, it’s the Mayo Clinic and I’ve got to go THIS WEEK!” Ha.
But these are kind of small potatoes complaints. The biggest concern with a movie like this, especially one that doesn’t have strong side plots to resolve, is how do you end it without, bluntly, screwing up? It’s not easy. The temptation is there to follow the disease to death, but that’s a bummer and it begs for denouement that can’t possibly be satisfactory. And we’ve seen lots of movies that end with a death that everybody knew was coming. If it’s not a heroic death, but rather a long slide into that good night, it can be a tough sell. But if you end the movie early (i.e. before the death) how do exit cleanly, how do you counter the lack of closure to leave the ending both believable and memorable?
I would say that the single strongest aspect of Still Alice was its resolution of that problem. Lydia, who has been a symbol of strife in the film and whose acting career Alice once disapproved of, is trying out for a play while caring for her, alone, in New York. She reads a passage to her mother from “Angels In America” – the prose is a bit purple, but the gist of it is that the narrator, on an airplane, imagines seeing the souls of the dead rising up from the earth, joining together into ozone molecules, and thus healing the earth in their own small way. “Mom, can you tell me what the story was about?” Lydia asks. Alice, now nearly incapacitated, struggles and finally manages one word: “Love.” Lydia begins to look as though she’s going to protest, then regains her countenance. “That’s right, mom…it was about love.” And as it fades out you realize that yes, that’s what the movie was about.