It's a figure of speech to talk about losing one's mind, but the idea takes on new and awful meaning when it actually happens -- when language and concepts and sense of where and who you are begin to deteriorate and you slowly lose the faculties you've always taken for granted. I have a terrible fear of this happening to me, and as I settled into a screening of Still Alice, my anxiety level rose. Why do I keep getting stuck with a word on the tip of my tongue? Why have I always walked into rooms and forgotten what I've come there to do? Yet as the film progressed, the realism it brought to bear far overshadowed my panic. My pounding chest calmed, then turned to heartbreak with the unfolding of the story of a family whose bonds are tested by the ravages of a neurodegenerative disease.
Still Alice offers an intimate narrative of a 50-year-old woman still in her prime who's diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Her story is told from a deeply personal perspective, getting the audience about as close to a first-person experience as possible. Julianne Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor who one day forgets the word "lexicon" in the midst of a lecture. It's a far more significant moment than she thinks, ultimately symbolizing the imminent loss of her entire store of knowledge.
Alice's youngest daughter, played by Kristen Stewart, is a struggling actress. First seen butting heads with her mother at a restaurant, Lydia appears stubborn, rebellious and adamant that she's making the right decisions. And as we get to know the whole family -- including Alice's other two children (Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) and husband (Alec Baldwin) -- it becomes clear that Lydia is much more than the rough-edged black sheep.
Stewart's character is the only one who can face her mother, illness and all, head-on with love, sympathy and the innate decency not to treat her any differently. Alice's relationship with Lydia is the tie that truly binds.
Speaking about her role in Still Alice at a press event in Beverly Hills, Stewart expresses a feeling of kinship with Lydia -- from her character's need for artistic fulfillment to her free-form outlook that's open to uncertain situations.
"I think it is easier for a person who lives and indulges in the ambiguity of life," she suggests of Lydia's adapting to her mother's circumstance. "And I think that it's easier for a child [like that], looking at a mother with something that is so indefinable; it's easier for [her] to appreciate and live in the moments. And just because you can't have a final answer in terms of how it's all going to work out, or you can't call it by a name, it's still worth living in that potentially wonderful moment, [as opposed to] somebody who wants to map it all out, and if they can't solve it like an equation then they just can't have it in their lives. I can relate to my character in that I definitely don't have the answers and that's not even what I'm looking for. I'm not the type of person who's like, 'I just need to feel concrete. I just need to feel like nothing is going to change.' I revel in the change, and it's not that [Lydia is] more apt or has the tools to be more emotional -- she's not emotionally stronger. It's not strength; it's just the way people are. I think within this story and within anyone's realities that might be similar, I hope to God they have someone who doesn't need the answer, and who's just willing to sit there and forget every other sentence and still enjoy the afternoon."
When asked how she can relate to Lydia's life as a struggling actress when Stewart herself is already a "mega-star," she suggests that the search for artistic fulfillment doesn't end, even when you're at the top. "One of the greatest struggles as someone is becoming an adult is figuring out what they want to do, what makes them happy. I feel like Lydia actually figured it out quite early. The courageous thing is to stick with it, and see it through, and see if you are correct."
She admires the tenacity of her friends who are still working to achieve their goals, and that even with her own success, she knows what it's like to seek avenues for self-expression. "If I stopped working tomorrow, I would still have these impulses, these feelings to get out," says Stewart. "These questions and desires to explore -- I still can completely relate. I feel that way every time [I take on] a responsibility as great as saying that I'm good enough to be in your movie. It's a huge statement to make and every time I do it, I think -- is this the right choice?"
Though she hasn't experienced a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's, Stewart describes a childhood memory of sharing an emotional moment with an elderly woman and later witnessing her isolation even when surrounded by family at the dinner table. "Her soul is singing and she's definitely not being heard," she recalls. "And I remembered that for a long time." Stewart suggests that though knowledge and memories fade, the essence of someone afflicted with the illness remains. "If anything," she opines, "you see a truer side of somebody who is so stripped and showing only their bare bones. There's no affectation; there's no pretense. You can almost see a version that is clearer."
Introspective, playfully sarcastic and uncomfortable with praise, Stewart has the respect of her colleagues whether she wants to hear it or not. As co-writer/co-director Richard Glatzer -- who speaks with the aid of an iPad due to his own battle with ALS -- notes, "She doubts herself constantly and is the last person to recognize how great she really is."
Writing this piece, my anxiety spiked once again as I began to hyper-focus on the limits of my cognition and wonder if any of my findings indicate a downward spiral looming ahead. Yet as I plunged back into my recollections of Still Alice, the cataclysmic scenarios my brain was cooking up gave way to the truth and emotion of the film. Powerful stories and powerhouse performances blast away superficialities and draw attention to what's actually important.
Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice premieres in wide release January 16.