‘Still Alice’ and the Empathetic Eye

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. There are currently 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and a new patient is diagnosed every 67 seconds. Given the striking number of families this disease affects, the discussion about a cure and preventative methods is always simply nearly at hand. People are beginning to expect that after a certain age we naturally begin to lose our memories and we even lump this in with losing our minds. This is not the case. Institutionalization of people suffering severe and often rapid memory loss is commonplace and it is no wonder why: families disperse, money is tight, and time to care for elders is limited, as it is considered in American culture to be secondary to childcare (and even self-care). That is a snapshot of the big picture we face in regards to this scary and seemingly ever-common illness in the 21st Century. A cure cannot come soon enough, but I would like to think that portrayals of the illness on screen and in print will bring the experience into the spotlight and help people feel not as lonely in their struggle.

Seeing this image of deterioration on screen in ‘Still Alice’ carried me to a relatable place, as my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s just a few years ago. I’m certain that many viewers in theaters across the country felt pangs of loss for their own loved ones as they watched Julianne Moore portray a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.

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Julianne Moore plays Alice, a character who has led a life of success, comfort, good fortune, and prestige. Alice represents those who experience the rapid decline of a hereditary form of Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, Alice is the type of person whom one would least expect would ever have such an unfortunate end, as she is healthy, happy, relatively worry free, received consistent and top-notch medical care, and, above all, lived in and cared for her mind as an academic.

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The tragedy of, as she puts it, “losing everything I ever worked for” is enormous, all-encompassing. The pain layered onto Alice’s family one lost skill and one forgotten moment, name, appointment at a time is severe, which comes across very clearly in the film. The pacing of the protagonist’s gradual decline makes for an captivating story viewers can empathize with moment-to-moment. The intimacy of the conversations between mother and daughter and husband and wife draw the audience in a close embrace like few other family dramas I have seen in recent years.

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The most effective supporting performance comes from Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s youngest child, Lydia. The two were already close, but the differences they had soften as Alice begins to fall into the more vulnerable stages of the illness. Instead of being impatient and saddened, Lydia learns to appreciate her mother at the core level exposed by the disease. She takes care of her emotionally, in the most trying moments, understanding that Alice is more than the judgments she gave when she still had the ability to choose her words to suit occasions; when she still had a concept of occasions and the effect of sharing ideas.

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Alice blooms in her daughter’s eyes into more than a mother, or even a sick mother in the case of the circumstances at hand. She becomes a person with layers, and perhaps, as in the case of my own experience with my grandmother, there was a gift in seeing those layers, that truth- however brutal the exposure. ‘Still Alice’ is a sensitive and delicate American family portrait that should be taken as a little more than “just a movie”. It is relevant in a way that more films should be in this era of dreadful diagnoses, in which we still have a very long way to go in turning an empathetic eye toward mental health as a whole issue.

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