There's a master class in screen acting coming to a theater near you, which is reason enough (for those who care about such things) to see Still Alice. Heavily favored to take home a Best Actress trophy at this year's Oscars, Julianne Moore plays the titular character, afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease.
Movies about illness cut with a double-edged sword: in one sense, they're a sure thing. Most all potential audience members fear death and the diseases that precipitate it, Alzheimer's being one of the cruelest. On the other hand, films about disease run a real risk of earning the "disease-of-the-week" label, born of a time when such stories of struggling against illness dotted the network-TV (and, later, Lifetime cable) landscape.
As adapted by writer-directors Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland (last year's The Last of Robin Hood), Still Alice derives from a 2007 bestselling novel by Lisa Genova. The premise immediately puts skeptical viewers on guard with its overly neat irony: Dr. Alice Howland is a cognitive psychology professor (and world-renowned linguistics expert) who's uniquely qualified to understand what the degenerative disease is doing to her as it proceeds on its death march, as well as to devise coping mechanisms to attempt to delay the inevitable. At the tender age of fifty, Alice is also a statistical rarity, which is, of course, no comfort.
The plot, such as it is, concerns how Alice handles her illness, personally and psychologically in strategic and emotional terms, as well as troubleshooting its impact on her career and her family members and their relationships. Husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research scientist, is sympathetic, but perhaps insufficiently empathetic, his practical-mindedness threatening his ability to love Alice to the nth degree forced by Alzheimer's. Their kids (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish) don't much lack for loving concern, but have the additional worry of wondering, or perhaps worse, coming to know by testing, if they have inherited the genetic markers of the disease.
Through it all, we stick closely to Alice's side, as she frets about not being a burden and determines not to live past her mind's expiration date. It's all extremely upsetting—what greater horror is there than losing one's mind?—and deeply sad, but Still Alice never distinguishes itself through style and metaphor (as did Amour) and rarely achieves grace in story, dialogue, and character dynamics (as did Away From Her).
Still still hums with humanity in the person of Moore, whose towering performance shows a staggering technical proficiency (the low-budget film could not afford to shoot in sequence, compounding Moore's challenge) while never losing a whit of emotional resonance. Moore invites us inside Alice's pain and frustration and fear, and it becomes ours (kudos too to Stewart for maximizing her scenes as the family's black sheep, whose sensitivity suddenly makes her an M.V.P.). In preparing us for the human dimensions of disease, via a great performance, Still Alice ends up something of a class act.