Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: "Still Alice" is a Heartbreaking Masterpiece on the Fragility of the Mind

Left to right: Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore
There's nothing trickier to depict in cinema than neurological disorders. It is by nature not a very cinematic problem as mental problems are almost always invisible to those around the suffering victim. While extroverted diseases can be compelling, they're often brought into question on authenticity. With co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice,  they manage to do something profoundly simple: create a heart-wrenching drama about a young woman (Julianne Moore) suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. We know how the story ends, yet the ride along the way is a fascinating look into something so tragic that everyone around is deemed helpless at a point. In lesser words, it is a masterpiece of a neurological character study.

Moore stars in the lead role as Dr. Alice Howland, who is far from uneducated. She is a teacher at a prestigious college and a master linguist. One day, after getting lost while going for a job, she goes in for a diagnosis that changes her life. Her memory is deteriorating. What starts off as small lapses in judgment turns into a loss of common words and even long term memory. Between husband John (Alec Baldwin) and daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the story goes on to explore not only how the disease is changing her daily life, but also how her own family perceives her. There are points where Alice doesn't even recognize Lydia and reads through her journal, including notes on her theatrical performances in "Angels in America." Most of all, there's uncertainty of how much long the pristine Alice is going to be around. She is slipping by the second and the thought of it being hereditary haunts Lydia. 

The greatest piece to the film's emotional core is Moore's simplistic performance. Where one would assume to build on Alice's problem, she devolves in a nuanced silence. Beginning with the sharp mind, she slowly unravels the tapestry of her brain. Sometimes its just a few words while others are packed with important things. While everyone grows frustrated around her, it is done out of love and the innocent smile on Alice's face only makes the experience all the more painful. She doesn't mean to be forgetful. With exception to the crescendo that builds to an emotional powerhouse in the final moments, the most interesting moments in Alice's disease is when she's still cognizant and aware of her problem. Her candid, vulnerable reflection on having memory loss embodies an insecurity and helpless nature that lives inside her. She can still recognize her problem, but there is likely no cure. The moment doesn't feel big, but it serves as catharsis that only gets worse. As much as the film is about tragedy, it is also about the sense of loss and the preciousness of time.

The direction itself may not be the most compelling or exciting. However, that isn't the point. This is a character study between the Howland family. Between the central three, the sense of sacrifice and understanding becomes clearer as things go along. Still, to watch Alice bumble around in her later stages is to witness a performance so profound that you want to reach through the screen and into her brain and personally fix the wiring. Moore's believable performance is unnerving and doesn't attract attention to itself. Without any stylized cinematography and only two great supporting performances to back her up, Alice fades into the obscurity of even her own life. Her achievements as a professor no longer matter. As an audience, we are cut off at the moment when Alice "disappears." Leaving us to hang onto the note, the sense of loss lingers over. Even if she doesn't die, her fate feels far more tragic.

Still Alice is a film that will destroy you emotionally. For those that have ever questioned the fragility of the mind, it will be seen as a nightmare. As a performance, Moore delivers one of the greatest of the year and possibly her career. With a reverential approach to a very unflattering topic, the film manages to explore Alzheimer's without drawing too much unnecessary sympathy to it. The actions do most of the talking and by the end, you feel sympathetic for everyone, no matter how small their involvement in Alice's life actually was. Like memories themselves, we want to hold onto the sane Alice for as long as possible even if we know that she won't last. With a highly nuanced performance, Still Alice is a masterpiece about how precious memories actually are. 

Wow. All I know is that this film is unsuspectingly amazing. I have already made my case for why it is one of the year's best. However, I want to state the obvious first: Julianne Moore should get that Best Actress Oscar, no contest. The fact that she manages to shrink in performance by the end of the film and still maintain emotional resonance reflects something grander about an actress. It is unsuspecting but still vivid and powerful. There hasn't been too many other performances that have flat out compelled me as greatly as this one. Sure, Best Actress generally goes to showier roles, but I pray that The Academy makes an exception here. 

On another note, I am really annoyed that the studio is dragging their feet with promoting this film. It has survived on word of mouth. That's fine. However, there isn't even a trailer out there yet in which I could reference to potential viewers. This is a film that should be lighting up the awards season, but I doubt too many people know its existence beyond one uninspired poster. While Moore has done well in winning awards (most recently at The Gotham Awards) for her performance, I worry that this will be one of those films that people will hear about in hindsight. I don't even know if it will stand a chance at a Golden Globe nomination next week. 

However, if the studio knows what they're doing, they would be smart and start promoting it pretty soon here. I feel like we're undervaluing its Best Picture potential here. If Silver Linings Playbook can ride on the coattails of being kind of about mental illness, then this should be a shoe-in. The subject matter is heavy and important and most of all, it is just a phenomenal story worthy of more attention. This is probably the one devastation that I had coming out of the film that nobody is recognizing its Oscar potential. I don't expect it to get too many other Oscar nominations, but I want Best Picture and Best Actress to be the guaranteed because this film has what it takes.

Will Julianne Moore win that Best Actress statue? Will the lack of marketing hinder Still Alice's potential? Is there any supporting character worthy of a nomination?

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