Most of us can't imagine having a disease that tugs and tears at the very threads of who we are. When we wake up in the middle of the night with outlandish fears, we strike reassuring bargains with ourselves: If I lose my sight, I'll still have music. If I lose my hearing, I'll still have color and light.
But what if the person you've spent years becoming were to be locked away permanently in a body -- your body -- that's still thriving? In Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice, that's exactly what happens to 50-year-old Alice, an Ivy League linguistics professor -- played by Julianne Moore -- who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. She makes those reassuring bargains. By the time the inevitable happens, she won't even remember what they were.
Who is Alice, once she's no longer able to speak or recognize family members, let alone teach or read or, essentially, do any of the things that used to define her? The answer is embedded in the title of the film, and it's an indication of the movie's melancholy hopefulness: While Still Alice isn't exactly the sort of cheerful pick-me-up you'd seek out on a dreary January day, it's so fine-grained, so attuned to everyday life even under extraordinary circumstances, that it doesn't register as depressing. Glatzer and Westmoreland shape Alice's story with such delicate matter-of-factness that it never tips into Lifetime-movie territory, but the key, maybe, is Moore's performance. She maps Alice's gradual debilitation -- or, rather, her awareness of it -- like a pioneer in a strange new land, watching the ship that carried her there slip away into the distance, a dot of meaning that will soon mean nothing.