Movies serve many purposes, but one most pregnant with potential is a movie’s ability to help audiences encounter a person or situation unfamiliar to them, and, in doing so, allow audiences to process the fear that accompanies that unknown person or situation. Conquering fear is the first step to making peace. I truly believe that if we watch movies aware of the fears they hinge on, aware of our own responses to those fears, and open to having our perspectives widened on those people and situations, great, healing change can be accomplished in ourselves and in society at the movies.
Still Alice, a film about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s for which Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar this past year, is that kind of fear-conquering film, or at least it can be if one’s fear is Alzheimer’s, either as the afflicted or as someone in relationship with someone afflicted with the disease. The terror of Alzheimer’s Disease is that it is a kind of living death where almost everything that makes a person a unique individual is slowly drained away until only the form of the person is left. In its early stages, the afflicted person is aware of that loss, and the friends and family of that person remain aware of it even after the person no longer can.
Julianne Moore portrays this loss remarkably, and as a portrait of Alice, her character, Still Alice is quite good. The film is practically a biopic—the film even borrows liberally from the biopic’s genre conventions—and biopics are typically carried by performances that transcend mimicry to become embodiments. Moore embodies Alice and her disease as if Alice is a real person, and I suppose for the friends and family of people with Alzheimer’s, Alice might as well be a real person. Still Alice is cathartic in that way, enabling us a peak behind the veil of a disease that is like an ever-thickening curtain.
The film also gives enough attention to her family to be clearly respectful of them. I would have welcomed a longer film that gave more time to the many ellipsed story-lines of Alice’s family members, a film that showed the worth of her life in that it extended beyond her lifetime into the lives of those she touched. Then again, this film is about Alice, and for Alice, those story-lines simply ellipse as her disease claims her cognitive functions.
Ultimately, Still Alice is more than a great performance. The film is an opportunity to empathize with someone experiencing something we all hope to never experience either personally or by association. Still Alice is an opportunity to encounter the fear of Alzheimer’s that many of us face. It is an opportunity to see the life that yet surrounds the slow death of Alzheimer’s, the love that sustains those afflicted, and the hope that yet remains in that life and love. We may one day cure Alzheimer’s. We will not cure death. Still, there is hope.