Julianne Moore is one of the most vanity-free of working actors, sometimes to a fault. Few of her peers, male or female, seem so willing to push into the discomfort zone and flesh out characters who are needy, deluded, arrogant, or just plain jerks. In an early film, Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” she played an entire marital-argument scene naked from the waist down; in “Maps to the Stars,” one of five Moore movies released in 2014, she’s cast as a has-been movie star so monstrously self-absorbed that it’s as if she’s daring you to keep watching.
“Still Alice” is hard to watch, but for different reasons. Filmed straightforwardly — at times to the point of dullness, more often to the point of tears — it’s an everyday tragedy about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and its effects on one vibrant 50-year-old woman named Alice Howland (Moore). Why would you want to see this movie, aside from honoring Moore’s fifth Oscar nomination and likely first win? Because, at its best, “Still Alice” is a moving inquisition into the emotions and memories and connections that make us us and how we might cope when they’re taken away with slow, impersonal cruelty.
Moore’s character is a powerhouse when the movie opens: an acclaimed Columbia linguistics professor who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, a successful research physician named John (Alec Baldwin). Their three children are grown and launched. Alice’s life is almost perversely perfect and we’re invited to feel a little dismissive envy before the rug gets pulled out from under her and she starts forgetting things.
An early interview with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken) is filmed in one long take that focuses solely on Alice in medium close-up, and Moore reveals the woman’s professionalism, pride, panic, and shame in tiny increments. Her life’s work is words, and now they’re going; the worst thing about the disease is that you have a front-row seat to your brain’s slow death. Ever practical, Alice hides a vial of sleeping pills in a drawer and records a video to her later self telling her where it is and what to do: a message in a bottle to a future castaway. The payoff to that sequence is even more heartbreaking than you can imagine.
“Still Alice” focuses mostly on its heroine’s family ties and how they fray and are rewoven as the months unfold. The husband is a rock, even as we see his frustrations surface in out-of-the-way places. The son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is a cocky medical student brought up short by a mortality that isn’t in his textbook or on his rounds. The tightly-wound older daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), married and struggling to have children, has to confront the possibility that she may carry the gene that is destroying her mother. And the baby of the family, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), pursuing an acting career in LA, wrestles with being pulled back to a demanding, vulnerable mother just as she’s trying to break free. The movie and Moore are scrupulous enough to show Alice using her disease to try guilting Lydia into going back to college, a painful and painfully honest scene.
The movie’s unadorned in its style and at times risks flatness. You sense there’s simply no time for movie-making theatrics, and that may be as true behind the camera as in front of it. The writer-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, have been a professional and personal couple for years (the fine “Quinceanera,” in 2006, the dire “The Last of Robin Hood,” in 2013), but in 2011 Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS. The two have spoken in interviews of finding parallels to his experiences in the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova on which this film is based, and there’s an urgency to “Still Alice” that translates onscreen to no-frills storytelling.
There are indignities aplenty, then, but also an insistence on holding on, for as long as possible, to what you have. “Still Alice” has many moments that pull at your emotions, but the one that may reduce you to a wreck is the scene in which Alice, deep into the disease, gives a speech to an audience of Alzheimer’s disease researchers. It’s essentially the last class this lifelong lecturer will ever teach, and as she draws a yellow highlighter through each sentence as she speaks it, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” (still effective here, but it should probably be retired now from onscreen overuse), you sense the stubborn self that has made her who she is and the warmth, the curiosity, the need to know , that keeps her pushing on into the dark. “Still Alice” is much too clear-eyed to hold out false hope, but it’s a moving testimonial to going down with grace.