On Sunday, I reblogged an item from Reading, Writing & Riesling about Still Alice. It sounded really interesting and I listened to the video of the author, Lisa Genova, talking about Alzheimer’s and how she hoped her book would raise awareness. Then her book was turned into a movie and Genova was ecstatic about all the attention being given to this relentless disease. She is hoping that research will help to stop, or at least, to alleviate the symptoms, to make living with it manageable. My plan was to read the book and then go to see the movie. Well, Sunday night, Julianne Moore won an Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of Alice. Then I realized this movie was already at Rainbow Theatre (usually a sign that it’s been to the regular theatres and is now on its way to disappearing from theatres), so my plans changed. I went to see the movie but will still read the book.
Still Alice is a hauntingly poignant story of a 50-year-old linguistics professor, extremely intelligent and well-respected, wife and mother of three, who discovers that she has early-onset, familial Alzheimer’s disease. Alice has been experiencing symptoms of a problem: she’s been forgetting words, forgetting names, forgetting appointments, forgetting the route home from her run through Central Park. These signs are terrifying. She can’t avoid it any longer but, being a clever and inquisitive woman, she begins by doing the research. She goes to her neurologist and when requested to bring a family member with her to the next visit, she either thinks it’s an ‘optional’ thing or forgets it completely. We’re not sure. She tackles her problems with every ounce of her being, doing everything she can to stimulate her memory but lots of things still slip through the cracks. Her concern for her children, her meticulous hunt for the truth about her condition, how it will progress, and how she can hold on to a semblance of her real self while at the same time experiencing the sense of its loss, are heartrending.
Alec Baldwin plays her husband — at first, in denial, then extremely supportive, and finally, overwhelmed by his own changing role, and all it entails. Their younger daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and their oldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth) have totally different lifestyles and react in completely different ways: Lydia wants to encourage her mother’s use of technology to help her remember; Anna wants to remember things for her mother. Lydia doesn’t want to be tested at all; Anna has finally become pregnant and arranges for the testing right away — she’s positive. None of them find their new roles easy as they watch the rapid deterioration and try to understand what it is like for her, what she can understand, what she can still do.
Moore’s depiction of a woman losing awareness of her surroundings, of her family, of her intellect is all too real. She prepares to give a speech to an Alzheimer’s society, and copes by highlighting each line as she reads it so that she won’t keep reading the same line over and over. She tells them she is “learning to live in the moment”. She visits a home to learn what facilities provide for their patients, pretending she’s looking for a place for her father. She finds it depressing seeing people having difficulty completing mindless tasks, and alarms going off when they try to rise out of a seat, and so she prepares for the inevitable. She creates a file on her laptop giving herself instructions on how to retrieve a bottle of very strong sleeping pills, and tells no-one about her plans. She has a series of questions on her iphone with the instructions to open the computer file if she can’t answer them: what is the name of your oldest daughter? what month is it? what is your address? She tests herself every morning. Until she misplaces her phone.
The movie mostly centred around Alice and her younger daughter, Lydia, and all the other parts were pretty much peripheral. Lydia moves home to supervise her mother and learns so much about herself, her mother, and her mother’s disease. Their relationship changes in very special ways. There is a nice balance between the heavy emotional scenes and tender, even funny events but the movie as a whole is very disturbing.
This is a tragic but touching story. Probably each of us knows at least one person with some form of dementia and parts of this story will sound familiar. ‘Living in the moment’ is only a wonderful thing when you have a choice. Each member of Alice’s family has to put a hold on plans and aspirations. As each tries in his/her own way to hold on to the wife/mother they’ve known, they learn more about themselves. And Alice, herself, is trying to hang on to herself within her narrowing life; she is trying to still be Alice. * * * *