Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland  
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference
1 hr. 41 min.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice tells the story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) as she struggles through early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. At a time when many novel adaptations tend to be genre-oriented (last year’s highly successful Gone Girl) Still Alice is a breath of fresh air and a deeply affecting film in its own right.

Directing duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera) take a minimalist approach to visualizing the drama of Still Alice, lingering quietly during scenes when Alice is feeling lost and confused. A strong, gorgeous soundtrack manages to take control of scenes without feeling overbearing, helping bring out the film’s tone through several senses.

The heart of Still Alice, though, is undoubtedly Moore’s performance, which is easily deserving of the Oscar nomination it has earned alongside a collection of strong candidates. To call this Moore’s best acting of her career thus far is not meant to diminish her memorable work in films like Magnolia (1999) and The Kids Are All Right (2010). Instead, the accolades are a testament to the work being done in Still Alice and how fully Moore brings her character to life.

To play someone like Alice is much more difficult than other “big” roles that earn award consideration. Often, those performances require little variety: Be crazy, be loud, be the meanest version of a character you can be. Alice, though, requires Moore to portray someone slowly transitioning from one person into a stranger unto herself. It is fascinating and heartbreaking all at once, and even if the plot of Still Alice is otherwise mundane, this is an instance of someone being able to carry the weight of an entire film and turn it into something compelling.

What makes Alice even more compelling is her background as a professor of linguistics. In her spare time between lectures or during drives, she also plays Words With Friends with one of her daughters, emphasizing how important words are to her in day-to-day life. The irony might be a bit much for some viewers who prefer stories to be less on-the-nose, but Alice’s mental degradation is only enhanced by losing her connection with the quality that best defines her.

All this is not to say that the rest of the cast and characters fail to hold their own. Alec Baldwin plays Alice’s husband, John, and is solid — both in the sense of the quality of his performance and, to the best of his ability, as the rock that grounds Alice. In some scenes, it is even more difficult seeing John react to losing his wife, who has to repeat questions and make notations more and more as her condition worsens. Elsewhere, Kristen Stewart (Twilight) plays Lydia, another of Alice’s daughters, who has an interest in stage acting that has taken her from her native New York to California. Lydia is the most estranged of the Howland children and has a troubled relationship with Alice, who urges Lydia to pursue a more realistic career path with financial stability. It is an overused character beat, but Stewart is quietly strong in the role as she begins to see her mother in a different light.

The content of Still Alice is challenging even for those who have no experience dealing with Alzheimer’s, but the film’s rewards — its central performance chief among them — are worth taking it on, especially during the early-year lull.