Alice is Still Dead. Look at that title. The blunt reality of that statement. The finality of it. Alice was alive once but she’s dead, murdered by two strangers at her own home. There’s no changing it. Only moving forward, if it’s possible. For Edwin Pendleton Stevens, Alice’s older brother, the “possible” remains an open question, even after writing and directing this stellar documentary. Filmed over the course of the months leading up to her murderers’ trial, his work serves two purposes — to memorialize his sister and to help him depict, in real time, his and his family’s quest for some solace in a world without her. This is a sharp, focused and intimate story about an everyday family grieving an unthinkable tragedy, unafraid to show the low moments along the way.
From the outside, the Stevenses are a pretty average American family, but to know them is to see they have survived a disproportionate level of tragedy. Ten years before Alice died, their brother Phillip committed suicide after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. In the interim decade, their father, Pendleton, fought several battles with cancer and required facial reconstruction. His own life was full of tragedy, too; he lost his first wife, as well as his parents, within 20 months of each other. Even before Alice passed, there was a lot for them to deal with as a family.
In part, that would seem to explain why Alice’s life was turbulent. She was adopted into the family and, according to her diaries, never felt at peace with it. The death of her brother when she was in her early teens hit her hard, as did her father’s illness. She had problems with alcohol early on and a string of relationships with men who mistreated her. According to some friends interviewed in the films, Alice’s relationship with her mother, Anne, was rockier than most between a teenager and her parent. Those friends also remember her as a kind, loving and funny friend who valued those close to her and truly cared for them.
The honesty by Edwin, his family and Alice’s friends when recounting her life as having ups and downs is part of what makes the documentary about her so authentic and heartwrenching. The fact is this: Alice was a light in their lives, and that light was extinguished execution-style by two men who had a beef with her boyfriend — who was also murdered and who abused her, which many of them were unaware of at the time. The house where they died was unkempt and distressing. Alice’s family must grapple not only with the way she died, but how little they knew about her life just beforehand. It’s a mourning for the randomness of her death but also the ways in which they never knew they could’ve helped her in life.
It is a lot to deal with, obviously, and as a documentarian, Edwin does an incredible job pouring his heart and soul into the story of his sister, how she died and how her family hopes to remember her. He’s open and honest about grief shattering him, as well as how it harmed his marriage at the time. The story not only talks about Alice and Ed, but also follows Ed’s witnessing of the trial where her murderers faced the justice system. The back half is a harrowing look at what it means to watch people who indescribably harmed you potentially walk away as free men due to the nature of criminal jury trials. Thankfully, there is a happier coda. But as the title implies, the succinct truth of it all regularly hits Edwin.
This isn’t a movie about moving on past grief and sorrow but rather one about finding a way to understand it as a part of you, as something that will never leave you as long as you live. It is, for lack of a better term, one of the finest autobiographical portraits of a man coming to grips with a feeling of profound loss that I’ve ever seen. Unsparing in its honesty, detail and ultimately compassion, Alice is Still Dead is an extremely hard watch but a rewarding one nonetheless.