Can a film be important without being great? Still Alice is based on Lisa Genova's best-selling novel and was written and directed by indie filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. It succeeds at painting a painfully vivid portrait of one woman's gradual dissipation due to early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Julianne Moore's moving, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role should be enough to earn Still Alice a following, but the film is so careful about exercising restraint and avoiding sentimentality that it never builds any real dramatic tension. What's left is something that used to be called tragedy when it was widely produced as theater, but it's not enough to carry a 21st-century feature film.
One problem with depicting the slow build of an incurable disease on film is the predictability of that progression. Still Alice's early scenes lay all the cards on the table. Fifty-year-old Alice Howland is a linguistics professor at Columbia University, a happy, over-achieving intellectual and the mother of three grown children. She loses her place while giving a lecture, displays a disturbing loss of short-term memory during a family dinner and suddenly can't navigate the campus on which she works. We know that Alice's cognitive deterioration is only going to get more pronounced and difficult to watch as the film proceeds. Making matters worse for her is an extremely rare form of familial Alzheimer's. Each of Alice's children has a 50 percent chance of suffering her fate when they reach middle age.
Moore delivers a workshop in acting for the screen largely by using her face and physical presence to communicate Alice's growing and eventually almost wordless confusion. Teen idol Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga) manages a surprisingly poignant turn as Alice's daughter Lydia, the misunderstood creative type in an intensely academic and science-oriented family.
But Stewart's work also spotlights one of the film's primary shortcomings. Still Alice might have explored how the gradual loss of the matriarch can affect fragile family relationships. But Alice and Lydia are the only family members the film allows us to know. Alice's husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a caricature of a shallow, career-obsessed man, and daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) and son Tom (Hunter Parrish) function mainly as eye candy. The terrible choice faced by the siblings — whether or not to get the genetic testing that may reveal their own tragic fates — is confronted off-screen and dismissed in perfunctory style. Underdeveloped characters are never a plus no matter how brilliant your lead actress may be.
There's always an activist element of some kind in any film that addresses social or physical ills. By depicting Alzheimer's in a realistic manner and raising the specter of its danger to future generations, the film makes an understated case for bolstering the chronically underfunded research into the disease. Those efforts are brought home by the fact that Still Alice co-director Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, a disease familiar to many through the life of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Though very different, ALS and Alzheimer's both involve the inexorable loss of one's sense of self. Bringing that experience out of the shadows and into a place of shared understanding is where Still Alice finds its purpose.