Written by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland (89 pages)
Still Alice is a film about Dr. Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor, as she deals with early onset Alzheimer’s. The story is about how this affects her relationship with the world around her, with her family and with herself.
Quick Sequence Breakdown –
ACT 1: (Pages 1 – 29)
Sequence 1: (Page 1 – 12) We are introduced to Alice and her family. She is giving a speech at UCLA, and while in Los Angeles she visits her daughter, Lydia, a struggling actor whom Alice pressures into considering going back to college. We also meet Alice’s husband, John, and her other two children, Anna and Tom. After returning home to New York, and following a couple moments in which she suffers light memory loss, Alice goes for a run and gets lost. It’s clear something is wrong.
Sequence 2: (Page 13 – 29) Alice visits Dr. Benjamin, a neurologist, to figure out what’s wrong with her. He conducts a quick memory test that Alice fails. Later, Alice has another significant lapse in memory when, at Christmas dinner, Tom introduces his new girlfriend, and Alice quick forgets meeting her. Back at the neurologist’s office, Dr. Benjamin says he wants to test for Alzheimer’s. After resisting telling her family, Alice finally tells John that she might have Alzheimer’s, and when Alice returns to see the doctor, she brings her husband with her. Dr. Benjamin tells her that not only does she have Alzheimer’s, but it’s from a gene that she may have passed onto her children. There is a 50% chance each of her children have the gene, and if they do, the gene guarantees that they will suffer from Alzheimer’s at some point in time.
ACT 2: (Pages 30 – 69.5)
Sequence 3: (Page 30 – 38.5) Alice and John inform their kids about her diagnosis and the gene that may affect each of them. They give the children a choice to take the test to determine if they have the gene. Ultimately Anna and Tom take the test, but Lydia doesn’t. Anna has the gene, Tom does not and Lydia won’t know. The diseases begins affecting Alice’s professional life. She has to inform her boss about the diagnosis when it begins affecting her teaching. Then, in a fight with her husband, Alice uses her disease as an excuse for forgetting about an important dinner. She wallows in her own misery and tells John, “I wish I had cancer.”
Sequence 4: (Page 39 – 48) Alice begins to take action, making a plan to deal with her disease. She visits a care center for elderly patients, taking a tour under the guise that this is for her mother’s care and not for herself. She sees a particular man who represents where she pictures she might end up one day. Alice then comes home to make a video of herself for her future self, when her memory will have worsened. We are not told what this video is, but she hides it using a significant term, ‘butterfly,’ about which we don’t yet know the significance. Alice and John then go to the beach and share a nice moment with each other, looking out at the ocean. She suggests he take a sabbatical and they travel the country for a year. She tells him it might be the last year in which she is still herself. John doesn’t want to admit she’s right, but Alice is right, and she’s trying to make the best of the situation. Later, she gets distracted by old family photos of herself at a young age (with her sister and parents), and we see how much worse her condition has gotten as she quickly forgets questions John has already asked her. Alice then fails to find the bathroom, even forgetting where she is, and urinates herself in her darkest moment up until now. It is undeniable how severe her condition has gotten, and this marks the midpoint of the story, on page 49.
Sequence 5: (Page 49 – 61.5) This sequence focuses on Alice’s relationship with her daughter, Lydia. Alice tells her about the significance of the image of a butterfly, saying when she was a kid and found out how brief butterfly’s lives were, Alice was distraught. Using her disease to guilt trip Lydia, Alice again tries to pressure her into going back to college. This angers her daughter. Later, Alice expresses frustration that she can’t read anything because she can’t hold onto what she has just read. John suggests she read some of the plays Lydia has been going through. She heads to her daughter’s room and comes across Lydia’s journal. Alice reads this, and Lydia finds out and becomes livid. Alice claims she didn’t mean to read it, rather her condition is to blame, not Alice herself. This is an interesting moment because we don’t quite know whether or not to trust Alice. We have seen her condition worsen to the point that this is believable, but we have also seen her use her diagnosis as a crutch in an argument with her husband in sequence 3. The next day, Alice tries to apologize to Lydia but explains that she can’t remember what they fought about. Lydia forgives her. Lydia asks her mom what the disease is like, and Alice is honest. This is a kind moment between them, pushing them closer together. It seems like, despite the disease’s severity, Alice and Lydia are bonding. Lydia gives Alice her journal with a note that says, “no secrets.”
The end of the sequence takes a heartbreaking turn, however, when the family goes to see Lydia’s play. We can see how hard Alice tries to pay attention, but then there’s a moment where Lydia realizes that Alice has forgotten who she is.
Sequence 6: (page 62 – 69.5) Alice, like in sequence 4, makes a plan to be proactive regarding her disease. Recognizing the severity and permanence of it, however, her plan is to spread what she knows about the condition for others, rather than just to manage her own disease for herself. She wants to give a talk at a Dementia Care Conference. John worries it’s not a good idea, but Dr. Benjamin loves the idea. Alice runs her speech by Lydia who encourages Alice to be more personal about how the disease has affected her and the way she sees the world. Alice’s Alzheimer’s have gotten so bad that, when she gives the speech, she must constantly highlight the text so she knows exactly where she is in her speech. While speaking, she drops the papers but is able to recover and even makes a joke about trying to forget this mistake which makes the audience laugh. At the end of the speech, the audience gives her a standing ovation.
ACT 3: (Pages 70 – 89)
Sequence 7: (Page 70 – 83) After the speech, things start to get worse. John tells her that he has a job opportunity at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Alice doesn’t want to move away from New York. We start to move more quickly through time, which symbolically works well because it reflects how Alice can’t very well make new memories, meaning things change right before her eyes. The main example is Anna’s pregnancy, only briefly discussed earlier in the story. Alice has more trouble with her disease, losing her phone (which hugely helps her manage her disease and stay organized), and later they find it in the freezer. What’s most impactful about this scene is that it occurs right after we see Alice struggle to find her phone, but then John says that she lost it a month ago. Later, John takes Alice to the hospital for Anna’s delivery, and Alice has already forgotten about the pregnancy until they see Anna. Alice holds her new grandchild lovingly, and Anna struggles to hold back tears. On another day, again further in the future as the time jumps add up, Alice overhears her family talking about her and what to do to manage her condition. Alice soon after finds the video file she recorder in sequence 4, and we finally learn what her plan was. The Alice in the video tells her to find a pill bottle and take all the pills. We realize that her plan is to force herself to commit suicide. She is about to do it, in a tense and dramatic sequence, before a home caregiver startles her, interrupting the process.
Sequence 8: (Page 84 – 89) The final sequence of the story deals with the forced acceptance that Alice won’t get any better. By this point we’ve seen how bad things have gotten, and how much Alice has lost. In this sequence, John finally shows how this is getting to him, and he is the last person (of the family members) to show that he is hurting too. Alice and John get pinkberry, as Alice did earlier in the story, and he shows her Columbia University, telling her that she used to teach there. Alice can’t even recognize her own past life, and this is a partial payoff (not the only instance of this payoff) of the speech Alice gave in which she said how important her memories were to her, and how she is losing them. Lydia moves back home to New York to pursue acting on the east coast and to be closer to her family. The story ends with Lydia reading from Angels in America, and Alice and Lydia share a hopeful moment that means so much more and is also so tragic, given what we know about Alice and where she’s headed:
What’s particularly interesting about this film is the focus on family (the worst part for Alice is that this might affect her children), uncertainty and the relationship specifically between Alice and Lydia.
Lydia is the most developed character amongst Alice’s children. She’s the only one who didn’t pick a conventional, lucrative career (law, medicine) and instead chose to try to act. Her life is all about uncertainty, and she embraces it. She likes her life because she likes what she does. At the same time it’s a struggle. Lydia is also the only child who chooses not to know whether or not she has the gene that would cause Alzheimer’s.
Alice, in her speech, talks about the importance of living in the moment because that’s all she has. The final scene is all about that moment in time because it’s fleeting. Alice has lost so much and will continue to lose, but as the passage reads, “nothing is lost forever.” That’s because what might seem lost has all facilitated this moment in time. It means Alice is there with her daughter who only exists because of certain choices made in the past, even if they’re now unremembered.
I think Alice’s journey is really the same one we must all face because we know we’re going to die. Alice’s ‘death,’ however, just so happens to take place before her heart stops. To her, life meant making memories and holding onto those memories like they’re super 8 filmed moments from her childhood. But you can’t always hold onto those things. All that remains is what you make, the most concrete of decisions that turn into some kind of action. This story argues that love remains as well, because love goes into all these moments, decisions, actions, and really everything that makes us feel alive.
Alice begins the film by holding back her fears about herself from her family. She keeps it to herself, and she might only finally share it because she’s told it could affect her children. If the doctor were to tell Alice that she has Alzheimer’s but that it’s completely fine for her children because it’s not genetic, you could easily imagine her hiding this disease from them until it’s painfully obvious it’s affecting her. Alice, in my mind, demonstrated her love for her children in terms of what she gave to them. She might point out how much she loves her children by describing how she and John gave them the best opportunities a kid could have and paid for their ways through college. This is exemplified when Alice almost pleads for Lydia to go back to college. Alice can’t understand that Lydia is happy, loved and that’s all that matters. She needs more concrete evidence that Lydia is doing well.
That concrete evidence that Alice looks for is what she begins to lose as her disease worsens. She can’t know that Lydia is consistently employed and set up in life or that her kids are even healthy and cared for. All she can know is that they love her, and that means she did a pretty good job.
So love remains, and that means that some things can never be taken away.