Presence, by Scott Nye
When discussing the possibility of being rendered unable to speak or communicate, kept technically alive purely through machinery, but unable to experience any of life’s joys, some people will insist their loved ones pull the plug and let them fade to death. “I won’t be myself,” they might say, or some variation thereof. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice ponders where that line between life and lifelessness might be, or if indeed it exists at all. In telling the story of a woman who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s, they explore the process through which a person loses all the hallmarks of herself, yet still retains a core humanity that they or their loved ones should not be denied, no matter how difficult the hardship. It’s a remarkably generous and empathetic experience, sometimes to a fault.
Julianne Moore stars as Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics, who, with her three children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish) out of the nest, is looking forward to the next stage of her personal and professional life, during which she and her husband (Alec Baldwin) can focus on their academic careers while truly spending time together. Only she keeps lapsing, mentally. At first it’s small – a misunderstanding in a conversation, her place in her notes during a lecture, or a name. One day, while out for a run on what seems to be her usual route, she finds she has no idea where she is. She sees a neurologist. Tests are done, and a diagnosis is made.
The diagnosis is less a way of explaining the present than charting the future. Every moment, potentially the last of its kind, is tinged with sadness. As good as Moore is at playing her character’s eventual helplessness, it is these in-between moments in which she really shines, as Alice has to come to terms with the limits of her own ingenuity and, to a certain extent, stubbornness. Alice has clearly succeeded in nearly everything she set out to do in life, and is now confronted by something that simply cannot be beat. Her pride is too great to let go naturally.
Glatzer and Westmoreland, who wrote the screenplay as well (adapted a novel by Lisa Genova), smartly chart this course by dropping in on specific moments along Alice and her family’s journey. Months might go by between cuts, and the dialogue they use to get us “caught up” never feels overly expository, while still suitably accomplishing the task. Their direction is generous to actors, framing around their performance, but their choices in where to place the camera and when to cut is very well-considered. In Alice’s first appointment with her doctor, we don’t see the doctor at all. The entire scene plays out with the camera on Moore, allowing us to see the way she processes his requests and questions. Later, while making Thanksgiving dinner, the cutting becomes rapid, highlighting Alice’s confusion with so many elements at play, to the extent that we expect some sort of disaster. The relief is intensified, then, when one does not come. Directors on these sort of films are usually quite content (or even expected) to simply provide coverage, gathering a series of medium shots that can be cut in a conventional manner, but Glatzer and Westmoreland have a grounded, thoughtful sense of pace and how to use the camera to tell a story without making the camera the subject.
Each of the family members react to Alice’s disease in different, sometimes surprising ways, but the film seems reticent to invest too heavily in the more negative ends, letting entire life-altering plotlines simply drop the moment they are raised. There is an extent to which the film’s singular focus on Alice allows this, as not everyone can bear to be around someone who requires so much of them, but this is not quite fully developed either. In the moments in which it is addressed, it provides for some of the most dynamic material in the film, making the exclusion of it at others all the more difficult to accept.
It indulges here and there as a sort of rallying cry for research into the disease, hardly the most ignoble pursuit, but one which divests it from the real soul of the film, as Alice’s struggle brings her exponentially closer to her youngest daughter (Stewart), with whom she previously had a rather difficult relationship. Stewart is magnificently generous, able to sit in the background listening in a very active manner, engaging in even the quietest moments with a sense of compassion that is at once somewhat selfish, yet totally giving. “What does it feel like?” she asks her mother, in a way that suggests she’s asking purely for her own curiosity, but which opens up a conversation Alice desperately needed. Still Alice quietly acknowledges that intimacy is built largely upon mutually compatible needs.
While it loses sight of this vulnerability from time to time, Still Alice is nonetheless a heartfelt, caring portrait of one the more difficult struggles a person can undergo, to slowly lose oneself while remaining ever present. It diverges here and there, but its honesty and compassion are beautifully developed and expressed.