Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Still Alice": a college professor's descent into early Alzheimer's is hard to watch

I’ve made it a point to review many small films about people with various disabilities, including dementia and Alzheimer’s.   Sometimes the commercial films seem to gloss over the most intimate points.  But “Still Alice”, directed and written by Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel, presents the full horror of the descent into early onset Alzheimer's and is hard to watch.  I did hear of a case like this when growing up and in the 1950s it was called "softening of the brain", without much pretense of compassion. 
Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, the renowned Columbia University linguistics professor, whose symptoms start when she has trouble pulling all the words in her lectures, at age 50.  Soon she has various tests (which are familiar to me from my mother’s course in her last year), an MRI and PET scan, and finally genetic tests.  They confirm she has an inherited form of early onset Alzheimer’s.  In a manner similar to Huntington’s Disease, he kids will have a 50-50 chance of inheriting it, and could choose to be tested.

Her husband, a medicine professor played by Alec Baldwin, stands by her and honors the “in sickness and in health” part of marriage.  Her progression is choppy and uneven, and probably accurately portrayed.  Her husband is offered a position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and he wants to go, and she fears he doesn’t want to stand by her, even though of course she would go.  It would sound like a good idea, as the best possible chance for treatment might be available there.

Of the young adult kids who come to all the family gatherings, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is the most challenging.  Instead of law school or medical school, she is following the thespian life, and early in te film confides to her mother that in return for her theater opportunity, she has to help raise funds – like paying for her own job (a common trend today) rather than having a real “professional” career.   Later, on the beach, Lydia says that what is expected of her “isn’t fair” and Alice retorts, “It doesn’t have to be fair; I’m your mother.”

The official site is here  (Sony Pictures Classic).  I saw the film late Saturday afternoon at the AMC Shirlington before a large audience, 

Picture: Columbia campus, my visit, MLK weekend 2014. 

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