Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Still Alice [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChiTribune/LATimes (3 Stars)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune/LA Times (K. Turan) review
RE.com (C. Lemire) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Still Alice [2014] (directed and screenplay written by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on the novel [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] by Lisa Genova [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] [IMDb]) is certainly one of the most gentle yet almost crushingly sad / poignant American films of 2014.

The story's about Alice Howland (played by Julianne Moore who may win and certainly deserves an Oscar for her performance in this film).  At the story's beginning she's at the top of her world.  Approaching 50, she's a professor of linguistics at Columbia University in New York, married to John Howland (played wonderfully in his supporting role by Alec Baldwin) a neurologist.

Together they have three grown children who are in various stages of "spreading their wings."  The eldest is Anna Howland-Jones (played by Kate Bosworth) already married, to a lawyer, named Charlie Howland-Jones (played by Shane McRae).  Together they are already working on having their first child.  There's son Tom (played by Hunter Parrish) who's in college, pre-Med.  And there's the youngest child, daughter, Lydia (played by Kristen Stewart) who's perhaps the only one isn't "following plan" or "meeting expectations."  Instead of going to college, she's moved to L.A. hoping to become an actress there.  And it's clear by way of a visit by Alice, after having given a talk at U.C.L.A., that "mom's not particularly happy." "Concerned" would probably be the word, with Lydia's recent set of choices.

Honestly, many, many Americans today would love to have a life like that of Dr. Alice Howland, PhD at the beginning of the story, but ...

... and this is a very important but ... just because up until this point, Alice has truly had "a wonderful life," doesn't mean that things will continue to go that way in the chapters that follow.

Life's difficulties come to all and in a way that teaches us as we mature and grow in wisdom that envy is pointless and often even cruel: the seemingly "easy years" of another's "fortunate life" are perhaps only God's merciful gifts to that person to help soften far, far harder years that can (and often do) follow.  And no one leaves this world without experiencing suffering, disappointment, eventual failure and death.  No one.

And so for Alice those _hard years_ arrive, initially almost imperceptively: During that speech at UCLA, she finds that she's suddenly and completely "lost her place."  And it takes her an embarrassingly long moment to find her place again, after having suddenly/surprisingly drifted away from her talk.  Then a few weeks later, back in New York, while jogging, an activity that she loved and kept her in the shape that she was in, she finds herself suddenly _lost_ ON CAMPUS, AT HER SCHOOL, COLUMBIA.  A number of weeks later, at Christmas dinner, the family notices that she reintroduces herself at table to her son Tom's girlfriend, after she had hugged her and welcomed her to the house when her son had introduced her to her perhaps only an hour before.

Enough of these small but sudden lapses makes her make an appointment with another neurologist (again her husband's one as well) to check if perhaps she may have a brain tumor.  Instead, after several visits to the doctor and some tests, she and by this time with husband John at her side are told that she's finding herself in the first stages of early onset Alzheimer's Disease AND that it's probably hereditary.

Of course John argues.  But yes, Alice's father "died early" nominally of cirrhosis of the liver (and had been previously dismissed as simply a drunk).  Suddenly it becomes possible that he _may have actually been compensating_ for early onset of  Alzheimer's (and nobody back then knew any better...).

Beyond the awfulness of the diagnosis comes of course the implication -- they two have three kids.  Two get tested, one does not.  One who's tested, tests positive and thus now knows what's coming 20-30, perhaps if one's lucky, 40 years hence ...

But then, this is still Alice's story ... What to do?  And remember this is a family that has a fair amount of money and the husband's EVEN ARGUABLY "IN THE FIELD."

Well there's NOT MUCH to do:  There's "research being done" that PERHAPS a generation from now may have a real impact.  There are "word games." And ... there are various somewhat ingenious "compensation strategies" (Thank God for "smart phones ...").  But in the end, there's the awful / heartbreaking / progressive decline ... of someone who "used to be able to do so much" and yet, now ...

This is a really powerful film, and ... perhaps as a small spoiler alert ... I do wish to say that the family really was, by and large, very, very good.

Anyone who's known anyone who's been diagnosed and suffered through the stages of a slow yet steady degenerative disease will definitely "understand" theis film.

And yet the film's not entirely a downer ... at least it's clear that Alice was loved.

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