TORONTO — "I wish I had cancer," Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) tells her husband John (Alec Baldwin) in the new movie Still Alice, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Columbia University linguistic professor just found out she has early onset Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia that has no cure. The sad irony that she's spent her career studying and teaching words only to lose nearly all of them is not lost on the audience or on Alice. When someone has cancer, Alice explains, people wear ribbons. But no one does the same when you can't find the words to make small talk, or any talk at all.
Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who also wrote the screenplay from Lisa Genova's novel, documents just that — the progression of an early onset Alzheimer's diagnosis from discovery to nearly complete incoherence. The film opens with Alice's 50th birthday party where her husband John, son Tom (Hunter Parrish), and older daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) are having dinner to celebrate. At one point, Anna complains to her husband Charlie (Shane McRae) that her younger sister Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is selfish for not having flown to the East Coast from her home in Los Angeles to join them. As Anna talks about her strained relationship with her sister, Alice interjects, as if to correct her: "My sister and I were very close." Anna and Charlie clarify that they were speaking about Anna and Lydia's relationship, not Alice's with her late sister. And just like that, the moment is over.
There are a few similar instances in the beginning of the film, subtle hints dropped here and there that are so small, the audience might miss them. But that's the point. Alzheimer's, at first, affects moments so irrelevant to everyday life that no one would stop to question the misunderstanding. But then, as if overnight, Alice's symptoms become more apparent. And once her diagnosis is confirmed, her mental deterioration is accelerated.
Still Alice is a difficult film to watch. Seeing Alice's loving husband and three children care for her is incredibly distressing, and the moments in which she doesn't recognize her own daughter is downright heartbreaking. But what is most painful are the scenes in which the viewer feels the effects of the disease from Alice's perspective. As her condition worsens, this story is told in a way in which the audience essentially experiences Alice's surroundings as much (or as little) as she does, only gaining a few additional pieces of information beyond what Alice sees, knows, and understands.
And because of the way the story is told, viewers experience the disorientation and isolation that come with Alzheimer's. There is no sense of how much time has passed for Alice or the viewer. In one scene, she comments on how something happened the night before and John is heard whispering that the event actually occurred a month prior. When Alice loses focus on the world around her, so does the frame in which moviegoers see it. While films have tackled Alzheimer's before, it's unique and poignantly harrowing to experience the effects of the disease through the victim's eyes as Still Alice manages to achieve.