Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a linguistics professor at Columbia University, starts struggling to find words, then to find her way back home from campus, and later on to find the bathroom in her own home. She is only fifty years old. Most movies handling the topic of dementia have reoccurring themes. Having difficulty finding words like Fiona in has in Away From Her (2006) or getting lost on a known path, like Norman gets lost in On Golden Pond (1981). However, perhaps nothing is as rude of an awakening as the moment of realization that one cannot find the toilet in her own home: this becomes the shocking confirmation to Alice that she cannot rely on herself anymore.
“Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were?”
The novelty of the film is its depiction of the rare, but all the more agonizing early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice has a sense of embarrassment as no one understands why she is being forgetful, sloppy and foggy at her age. She feels that she is in twice as humiliating of a position and that people’s expectations of her being a youthful intellectual at the peak of her career are not being met as her mind is becoming increasingly scattered. Those who have struggled with cancer, or have lost a loved one to the disease may take offence at one of her remarks, which illustrates the sort of desperation she feels. After her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, she wishes for cancer instead of dementia, feeling that she would have to carry less of a social stigma and would be met with more empathy and understanding than being a 50-year-old woman who gets lost in her own home and pees herself.
“I’ve always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them… and I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next”
Alice identifies with her intelligence. Unfortunately, she is aware that there isn’t any hope for improvement or cure. Being a linguistics professor who cannot remember her own words is an exponentially humiliating identity crisis for her. After all, the very definition of what she had built herself up to be is starting to fall apart as her sense of time, space and self-expression disintegrates rapidly. Upon visiting a care home for people living with dementia, Alice sees her fate but cannot imagine herself progressing to that stage of dependence. She prepares herself a set of questions and decides that once she is no longer able to answer them, she will take her own life. These questions are a recurring theme throughout the film, preparing what the movie is building up to; the moment where she can no longer find an answer to any of them.
“I am not suffering, I am struggling. Struggling to be a part of things, to stay connected to who I once was.”
As in real life, family plays a central role in the film; how each member reacts to and copes with Alice’s illness. With any debilitating disease, family dynamics may change, and the role of carer may shift from one person to another unexpectedly. Alice and her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), are brought closer by her disease. Lydia seeing her once strong and independent mother becoming vulnerable and reliant on others opens her up and their relationship becomes more honest and understanding that it has ever been. It is important to emphasise that while Alice’s husband, John (Alec Baldwin), goes to full lengths to care for her regressing wife, there comes a point where he can no longer cope with the idea of her transforming into the complete opposite of that brilliantly bright woman he fell in love with. Dementia can progress to a point where family members can no longer help the affected person in a meaningful way, but their memory of their loved one being overwritten and distorted by that late stage can be extremely hard to bear. Though some of John’s decisions may seem cold or cowardly, he should be spared from heavy judgement.
“So live in the moment, I tell myself. It’s really all I can do. Live in the moment and not beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing”
There are many different kinds of tragedies. Alice had to live through losing her mother and sister in an accident at a young age. At the age of fifty, she is facing early onset dementia and not long after her diagnosis she finds out that her eldest daughter also tested positive for the disease. In spite of all the tragedies of her life, Alice finds solace in a beautiful thought that her mother left her; butterflies have a really short life, but they have a beautiful life. This idea helps her to put her struggles into perspective and accept what’s awaiting her. She wishes to love and be loved for the short time she has left being ‘still her’.