Alice Howland is a 50-year-old lecturer in Linguistics at Columbia (and – thankfully – we’re spared a lot of gushing about what a genius she is) who starts forgetting words, and then things in general, even those which she has only been told moments earlier. She goes to a neurologist who diagnoses early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which she inherited from her father, and which she has passed to at least one of her children.
Howland does what she can to retain her memories, testing herself every day to see whether she’s still capable of remembering basic facts. Before the disease has gone too far, she makes a video to tell herself where she has stashed a bottle of sleeping pills which she is to take when she can no longer answer the questions she puts to herself. The obvious problem is that she’s likely to have forgotten about the video by that stage, and it’s by accident that she stumbles across it later on. Howland’s attempt to instruct herself to commit suicide fails because the nurse arrives, but she struggles to retain the instructions.
The film ends with Howland unable to produce much more than noises.
Julianne Moore largely dominates the movie in which the rest of the cast has a supporting role. This is perhaps for the best because otherwise it would be easy for this to have become mawkishly sentimental (little is made of the end of her academic career) or filled with shouting born of frustration with her inability to recall things. Similarly, Howland’s decline is tragic, but it’s presented as a tragedy which is a natural consequence of the disease.