I have been highly anticipating the release of this film. Still Alice was an early book club selection for The New Social Worker's Book Club. The New York Times best selling first novel by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist turned author, was well received by our group of social work readers.
Still Alice tells the story of Dr. Alice Howland, a well-regarded and ambitious linguistics professor who, at the age of 50 and in the prime of her career, notices that she is having trouble remembering words that once came to her easily. Gradually, she notices other lapses in her memory and cognitive functioning. She loses her way while running on campus one day and realizes that there is more going on than "normal" memory loss.
Alice's diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease comes as a shock to Alice (played by Julianne Moore), her husband John (played by Alec Baldwin), and their three adult children Anna, Tom, and Lydia. The story follows the emotional roller coaster this family experiences as Alice's disease progresses. Moore skillfully portrays a woman who is losing everything that has had meaning to her. The emotional and physical transformation of her character is realistic and powerful.
Having read Still Alice, I have to admit that I was not prepared for how young and vibrant Alice looked as the story began to unfold on the big screen. That is the shock of early onset Alzheimer's, or really any disease that strikes someone who is so seemingly healthy. But this seems especially cruel. "I wish I had cancer. It would be less embarrassing," Alice confesses to John. As my husband pointed out, it was almost as if Julianne Moore was playing two different roles - the "before" Alice and the "after" - brilliantly capturing the slow and steady cognitive, emotional, and physical changes from one to the other. Yet, as the title points out, these "two" characters are really one. She is "still" Alice.
Although this is a fictional story, social workers and others can learn a great deal from it. There is sadness, anger, and fear, as well as joy and love, as Alice and her family learn to navigate their journey with this devastating illness. Each family member copes in his or her own unique way. Her youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart, empathizes with Alice while at the same time attempting to establish her own identity as an independent young adult. Their strained relationship is complicated by Alice's worsening condition.
In the early stages of her disease, Alice devises ways to test her memory. She makes a plan and leaves instructions for her future self, but will she be able to carry out the plan at that future time? In one scene in the movie, Alice gives a speech to a group gathered for an Alzheimer's conference. She tells the audience, "I am not suffering. I am struggling."
The book contains much more detail than the movie. The setting has changed. But the essence of the story is the same, and that is the story of a woman and her family struggling as Alzheimer's Disease takes its toll and that young and vibrant person becomes someone who is almost unrecognizable even to herself.
I highly recommend Still Alice - both the film and the book - for social workers and others who want to understand what someone like Alice and her family might be going through. The movie has won numerous awards, including Julianne Moore's Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice.
Reviewed by Linda May Grobman, MSW, LSW, ACSW, the publisher and editor of The New Social Worker.
(Note: The Amazon link above is for the book, Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.)