Journey 179: Still Alice

I don’t usually post two movie reviews, back to back. However, I stopped by the DVD rental store Friday. I had no particular movie in mind. I just slowly walked the new release section, to see if anything grabbed my attention. I made it to the S section before I zeroed in on a DVD. I brought home Still Alice.

still alice movie poster

Still Alice stars Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McCrae, and Stephen Kunken and was directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The drama is rated PG-13 for mature themes and very brief language and has a run time of 1 hour and 41 minutes. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Alice.

Alice Howland (Moore) is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University, happily married, with three grown children. She has just celebrated her 50th birthday and life is grand. Except, Alice is experiencing these nagging little incidents. She struggles to come up with the right words and names at unexpected times, gets lost during a jog on the university campus, and loses her train of thought during a lecture.

Thinking it might be menopause, or worse, a brain tumor, Alice seeks out a neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Kunken), for a diagnosis. After a series of tests, she is shocked to learn that she has a rare form of early on-set Alzheimer’s Disease. With her husband John (Baldwin) beside her she tells her children, Lydia (Stewart), Tom (Parrish), Anna (Bosworth) and Anna’s husband Charlie (McCrae), that she not only has the disease, but it is genetic. It is possible that her children have the mutated gene as well, which means a 100% chance that they, too, will have the early on-set Alzheimer’s. Anna and Tom choose to be tested. Anna is positive for the gene also.

The disease progresses rapidly and Alice’s world changes just as rapidly. She leaves her teaching position at the university, finding it too difficult to lecture coherently. Alice is resourceful, though, and uses technology to help her. The smart phone becomes her memory, and every morning, at 8:00 am, an alarm sounds. Alice has a list of questions that pop up: What is her older daughter’s name? What is her address? What month is her birthday? She films a video for herself and stores it in her computer. At the bottom of her list of questions are instructions to watch the computer video, file name Butterfly, when she can no longer answer the questions. The video details how she can find a hidden bottle of sleeping pills and take them all…and sleep.

The Alzheimer’s Association invites Alice to speak at a conference. Using a technique she came up with, of underlining the sentences that she wrote with a yellow highlighter so that she doesn’t lose her place, Alice delivers a personal and moving speech about what it is like to live with the disease. She quotes the poet Elizabeth Bishoponce, who wrote, ”The Art of Losing isn’t hard to master: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” Alice goes on to detail what she is losing daily…her bearing, objects, sleep…but mostly she is losing her memories. She is little by little losing pieces of herself.

Alice’s family supports her, even as they watch the wife and mother that they know slip away. Anna and Charlie, after years of infertility, become pregnant with twins after fertility treatments. They have the embryos tested for the defective gene. Lydia, who lives in California, and is pursuing an acting career, struggles the most with the changes that are transforming her mother, and yet she is the most real and direct about those changes. She eventually moves home to live with her mother while her father takes a position with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Life has become simple for Alice, who truly lives in the moment. And it becomes simple for Lydia as well. She watches over her mother, and loves her.

This film caught my interest during the Academy Awards. Greg’s mother, Leta, died of Alzheimer’s 16 years ago. For almost a decade, her family watched her and loved her as the disease robbed her of her memories, of her ability to care for herself, and eventually of her speech and consciousness. She died peacefully at home, with her husband, whom she had not recognized for some time, holding her hand.

As I stood Friday, with the DVD in my hand, I wondered whether I really wanted to watch this movie, or not. I brought the DVD home. Tonight, with Sadness and my cat, Angel, as companions, I decided that yes, I did want to watch it. This was a beautiful film. My initial reaction was to resist Alice’s memory lapses, as if somehow I could will her not to go down that path. But, of course, Alice had no choice. I accepted that and allowed the film to unfold, moving me, bringing me to tears, scaring me, actually, that the mind can so quickly slide into confusion.

As Alice learned to adapt and accept her life, I learned to accept her journey as well, along with Leta’s similar journey. Both inhabited the moment so purely, so simply, so completely. Alice smiled to cover her confusion, watched what others did so that she could copy them. Greg’s mother did the same, and became like a small child, trusting, sweet, happy, for the most part. I was very glad, in the movie, that when Alice accidently discovered the video that she had previously recorded, her ability to remember limited her ability to carry out the instructions. By the time she found the pills and attempted to take them, her caregiver arrived. I am not making a statement about whether it is right or wrong to take one’s own life, under such tragic circumstances, however, Alice still had love and beauty in her life, and I am glad she remained present in it.

In the final scene, Lydia is quoting a beautiful story to her mother, which has at its core that nothing is lost forever, nothing is wasted, especially not life. Alice is not able to communicate well, but she smiles tenderly at her daughter. “Mom,” Lydia asks, “can you tell me what the story was about?” Alice smiles again and whispers….”Love”.  Lydia smiles back. “That’s right, Mom…it was about love.” That’s what this movie was about too. Loss….and love. I am glad I watched Still Alice. I am glad that I didn’t push Sadness away but embraced her, allowing her to infuse me with compassion for those who are struggling with this insidious disease, and with acceptance for all the richness and beauty that life brings, even when it pierces the heart.

still alice losing parts of herself

Alice, losing pieces of herself.

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