The movie Still Alice dares us to consider the complex and often unanswerable challenges that those living with Alzheimer’s are forced to face.
How does one prepare for death? How will my family care for me? What is a complete life?
Premiering recently at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Still Alice tells the story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an accomplished professor of cognitive psychology at Columbia University and the mother of three adult children.
We are introduced to Alice charging forward through life with impressive focus and ambition. In between flights across the country to speak at academic conferences, she finds time to jog, prepare healthy dinners, and address her daughter’s ennui with tact and delicacy.
Shortly following her 50th birthday and the news of her daughter’s pregnancy, Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s – a term used to describe the approximately five percent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses that occurs before the age of 65. There had been hints – a forgotten word or recipe – but the diagnosis is sudden, and the illness progresses at astonishing speed.
As her losses mount, Alice grapples with panic and shame, and franticly grasps for guidance. She visits doctors and care facilities, and clings to her fading career. She even considers suicide. Despite financial security and a supportive family, Alice’s life crumbles into disarray: the peak of her accomplished life abruptly revealed as a staggering precipice.
Co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice is a polished and contemporary film, led by a powerful and at times affecting performance by Julianne Moore, and supported by a cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, and Kate Bosworth. Adapted from Lisa Genova’s beloved bestselling novel, the film tactfully conveys the dynamic emotions of Alice’s journey, offering insight into the wide-ranging effects of dementia.
There are moments of despair and confusion, and there are moments of profound understanding and quiet joy. Speaking at a conference organized by the Alzheimer’s Society (in the film), Alice conveys these feelings with stirring concision:
“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today doesn’t matter.”
Films about those living with Alzheimer’s – the prevalence of which has steadily increased as our awareness and understanding of the disease grows – offer affirmation and support to families and caregivers by revealing shared experiences and mutual challenges. Throughout the film, Alice’s family and friends grapple with complex issues of loss, sacrifice, and revelation.
The nuance of the drama reminds us that there are no simple answers or solutions for dealing with dementia, and it also reminds us that it is not a journey that we take alone.
Look for Still Alice in wide release this fall.
Richie Assaly is a Toronto-based writer