Tag Archives: still alice

Review: ‘Freeheld’ is based on real-life domestic partner case

Few actresses bring the simple authenticity to the screen that Julianne Moore does; it’s virtually impossible to imagine this actress sounding a false note. And so it’s hardly a surprise that she is deeply convincing — indeed, heartbreaking at times — in the real-life role of Laurel Hester, a dying woman who fought to her last breath to give her domestic partner rights to her pension benefits.

If Freeheld, directed by Peter Sollett, packs much less of a punch than did Moore’s shattering Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice, which justly won her an Oscar, it’s not because of the acting — Ellen Page and Michael Shannon also turn in admirable work — but because the film (and the script by Ron Nyswaner) doesn’t give these characters, or their relationships, enough detail and depth to really bring us in below the surface. Instead, it’s a well-made but matter-of-fact account of a gripping story, one made more poignant by the advances made in gay rights in the decade since.

We begin in 2002. Laurel Hester is a devoted police detective in Ocean County, New Jersey, with two decades of work under her belt and the goal of becoming the first female lieutenant on her force. With this goal in mind, she hides her sexuality from colleagues, even from her longtime partner, Dane (Shannon). Indeed, she goes all the way to Pennsylvania to find a date. At a volleyball game, she meets Stacie Andree (Page), a much younger auto mechanic.

A year later, they’re an established couple, renovating a home and becoming official domestic partners. But then tragedy hits. A persistent pain in Laurel’s torso turns out to be advanced lung cancer. Stacie vows the couple will beat the disease. Laurel, never one for sugarcoating a situation, knows how bleak the odds are.

The movie then takes an abrupt turn into a legal drama. Laurel requests in writing that her pension benefits be transferred to Stacie, who otherwise will have to leave their beloved home, upon her death. The decision falls to the Ocean County freeholders, a body of five Republicans, and they turn her down, despite the existence of a state Domestic Partnership Act. One of the freeholders worries: “People could just make anybody their partners.” Only one member is sympathetic to Laurel’s cause, but joins in a unanimous vote.

The fight escalates when Laurel appears at a freeholder’s meeting, but the decision remains the same. The case gets into the media, though, and pressure grows. Meanwhile, we watch Laurel endure the ravages of chemo, see her get violently ill, see her hair fall out. We’ve watched this sad trajectory in countless movies, but Moore has a way of making most anything seem like we haven’t quite seen it before.

The film changes tone yet again when Steve Carell enters the picture as Steven Goldstein, a larger-than-life activist who urges Laurel to broaden her fight to include gay marriage. Laurel, ever the pragmatist, says that’s not her battle. Carell makes Goldstein brash, passionate and broadly funny, and though his entertaining characterization might well be accurate (the real Goldstein was sitting in front of me at my screening, and seemed to greatly enjoy the portrayal), the sudden influx of humor is somewhat jarring, given the tone until then.

The final scenes are both cathartic and, in the case of Laurel’s final moments, hard to watch — Moore is frail, white, and completely bald. It’s impressive to see the photos of real-life scenes at the end, and realize how carefully the filmmakers recreated the story.

And it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment when an onscreen epilogue reminds us that in June, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry. Which makes Freeheld an important lesson in how quickly times, and attitudes, can change.

Freeheld, a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.” Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


‘Still Alice’ highlighting often hidden toll of Alzheimer’s

Her performance as a vibrant woman fading into the darkness of Alzheimer’s is doing more than earning awards for actress Julianne Moore. The movie “Still Alice” is raising awareness of a disease too often suffered in isolation, even if the Hollywood face is younger than the typical real-life patient.

Some things to know about Alzheimer’s:

ALZHEIMER’S IS INCREASING BUT THE EARLY-ONSET FORM ISN’T COMMON

The movie is about a linguistics professor stricken at the unusually young age of 50 with a form of Alzheimer’s that runs in her family. That type of Alzheimer’s accounts for a small fraction of the brain-destroying disease.

About 35 million people worldwide, and 5.2 million in the U.S., have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias. The vast majority are 65 or older. Barring medical breakthroughs, U.S. cases are expected to more than double by 2050, because of the aging population.

As many as 4 percent of cases worldwide are thought to be the early-onset form that strikes people before age 65, usually in their 40s or 50s, said the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer, Maria Carrillo, who served as a scientific adviser for the movie. In the U.S., the association estimates that’s 200,000 people.

GENE TESTING ISN’T RECOMMENDED FOR MOST PEOPLE

Alice’s type is even more rare; she tells her three adult children in the movie: “It’s familial. It’s passed on genetically.”

With this autosomal dominant form of young Alzheimer’s, inheriting one of three genes with particular mutations leads to the disease. Children of an affected parent have a 50 percent chance of having inherited the family’s culprit mutation. As in other families, Alice’s children have to grapple with whether they want to be tested to find out.

But the vast majority of Alzheimer’s isn’t linked to a particular bad gene. There are various genes that can increase the risk, but people who never develop dementia symptoms can carry them, too. That’s why medical guidelines don’t recommend genetic testing for the average person.

MANY SYMPTOMS ARE UNIVERSAL REGARDLESS OF AGE OF ONSET

“I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am or what I’m going to lose next,” Alice says.

To help with the movie’s first-person perspective, Carrillo’s group put actress Moore in touch with someone in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s who could describe how disorienting symptoms felt — that frustrating inability to retrieve a word or the fear that comes with suddenly not recognizing a familiar place.

Forgetting a word now and then happens to lots of people. The Alzheimer’s Association lists warning signs that may distinguish between normal forgetfulness and something you should discuss with a doctor. On the worry list: memory loss that disrupts daily life, difficulty completing familiar tasks, withdrawing from social activities and personality changes.

PEOPLE MAY COMPENSATE FOR A WHILE

If it seemed like the movie’s Alice suddenly declined fast, consider a concept that neuroscientists call “cognitive reserve.” People who have had more years of education are thought to have some protection because the extra learning increased connections between their brain’s neurons. When Alzheimer’s begins blocking those connections, the brain at first can choose an alternate route to retrieve a memory.

“Your brain’s kept buffered up,” explained Carrillo. But eventually, the brain reaches a tipping point and can’t compensate any longer, so “the change seems more dramatic.”

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and today’s treatments only temporarily ease some symptoms. Scientists aren’t even sure what causes the disease, although a sticky brain protein called amyloid is one suspect.

Nor is diagnosis simple. There is no one Alzheimer’s test, but a battery of evaluations. Sometimes, doctors use PET scans to measure amyloid buildup, but only in carefully selected cases because plenty of people without Alzheimer’s harbor the gunk, too.

The Obama administration has declared a goal of finding effective Alzheimer’s treatments by 2025. Research suggests Alzheimer’s begins silently ravaging the brain up to 20 years before symptoms begin. One approach under study now is testing to see whether curbing sticky amyloid during that window period might at least postpone symptoms a few more years, if not prevent them.

On the Web

Information on volunteering for research: http://bit.ly/1dRZCv5

The government’s clinical trial database: http://www.clinicaltrials.gov