What is your oldest daughter's name?
Alice Howland recently turned 50, though her daughter Anna swears she only looks 40. But no matter what lens you look through, rose-colored or clear, the simple fact is that Alice appears to have it all. She's a brilliant and renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University in New York. She's happily married to an accomplished doctor. And she's the mom of three equally brilliant and beautiful adult children.
What street do you live on?
People who have it all, though, are also people who have a lot to lose. It started with some unexplained blank spots during her lectures. Forgotten words. Missed dates. And then suddenly she was in a state of complete and total confusion about where she was while jogging one afternoon on her own college campus. The world around her looked foreign. Unrecognizable. And Alice suddenly knew that her "little glitches" weren't simply a case of old age creeping in.
What month were you born in?
"Early-onset Alzheimer's disease," the neurologist says. "Sporadic memory impairment that's out of proportion for someone your age." To Alice, though, it feels quite simply like her brain is dying. And it's happening quickly now (eventually getting bad enough that she wets herself when she forgets where the bathroom is). Piece by piece she's losing everything she's worked for, lived for. Words hang in front of her, just out of reach. Her entire life is going, ebbing, draining.
What's your favorite flavor of frozen yogurt?
What to do, though, when she reaches the tipping point, when more is gone than remains? That's what she must focus on now. Before she totally loses ... things. Before she burdens others and breaks hearts. Before she can't remember her own name and can no longer answer simple questions, she should have some kind of ... uh, plan. Shouldn't she?
What do you ... do you ...
Alice's family—husband John, son Tom, and daughters Anna and Lydia—each make an effort to reach out to and stand by their beloved wife and mom through her challenges. They all do their best, though it's often frustrating and difficult. And once Alice realizes what's happening to her and what can be expected as her condition worsens, she makes every effort to relieve her loved ones of the stress and burden she knows is inevitable.
That doesn't stop Lydia, a struggling actress, from ultimately setting aside all her West Coast dreams to take care of her mom back in New York. The film applauds this choice and suggests that there are incalculably valuable moments the two share because of that sacrifice. And even in her worst moment, Alice still talks with Lydia about love.
Alice wears a butterfly necklace and tells Lydia that she likes the symbolism of the insect: For even though butterflies have very short lifespans, they have a "good life." Lydia makes it obvious that she doesn't like her mother applying that "short lifespan" philosophy to herself in any way.
The beauty and value of life is certainly a spiritual concept—something I'll deal with a bit more later. The family shares Christmas together (though the spiritual reason for the season is never addressed). Lydia recites a memorized monologue to her mom that speaks of souls floating up into the stratosphere.
Alice and John kiss several times and on one occasion talk of the (oral) sex they used to share at the beach. Lydia mentions that one of her two male roommates is gay.
[Spoilers are contained in this and the following sections.]
Alice sets things up so she'll be able to kill herself (with pills) if things become unbearable as her mental state continues to deteriorate. (I'll come back to this topic later as well.)
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and one s-word are joined by a use each of "d--n" and "a--hole." God's name is misused a half-dozen times and is combined with "d--n" twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Family members drink wine, sake and hard liquor during dinners and social gatherings. They have glasses of champagne during brunch. Alice mentions that her deceased father was an alcoholic. Alice takes prescribed drugs for her condition. She swallows a sedative to help her sleep. (And these are the aforementioned pills that Alice sets aside.)
Other Negative Elements
You've figured out by now what plan it is that Alice comes up with for the day when too many memories disappear and too much of her mind is missing. She has a series of simple questions programmed into her phone that she answers daily. And when she no longer can, a message is set to direct her to a file tucked away on her computer. It's a video to herself, created with patience and restraint. It contains a message that gently describes how to solve her problem. How to end her pain.
Suicide or mercy killing has come to be the "expected" cinematic solution when characters are dealing with irreversible agony or catastrophic mental and physical loss. And as a result it can start feeling like the humane thing to do when you're on the outside of a two-hour drama looking in.
Still Alice deliberately drifts down that same path ... for a time. As we live through the anguish of a tack-sharp academician being reduced to a vacant-eyed shell of her former self, and as we hear a gentle woman wish for cancer over Alzheimer's so she could feel less ashamed about her mental loss, it feels like her story is suggesting she swallow the bottle full of pills to find the final solution.
But this movie has so much more to say than that.
Through a tearfully gripping story (and Julianne Moore's masterful performance) we're shown instead that life is inviolable and love is sacrifice. And even when we don't choose life and love for ourselves, the film tells us, sometimes it is those powerful things that choose us. Even in the face of devastating loss, true love endures, it stands by us, it comforts and it protects. Still Alice wants us to know that love is well worth clinging to, no matter what point we presently occupy in our crazy and sometimes jagged journey through life.
"My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain," Alice asserts. "I live for each day. I live for the moment."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Julianne Moore as Alice Howland; Alec Baldwin as John Howland; Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland; Kate Bosworth as Anna Howland-Jones; Hunter Parrish as Tom Howland
Wash Westmoreland ( ), Richard Glatzer ( )
Sony Pictures Classics
December 5, 2014
May 12, 2015