In the middle of a snowy Chicago evening, a woman (Blythe Danner) leaves her home and trudges down the street. Her husband Bert (Robert Forster), alarmed by her absence, calls his son Nick (Michael Shannon) who in turn notifies his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) in California, asking her to fly out. Nick believes it is well past time that their mother be placed in a dementia ward, but Bert insists on maintaining "What They Had."
Actress Elizabeth Chomko makes her filmmaking debut with a fictional account of what she experienced within her own family when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The matriarch's illness sparks three generations of one family to reconsider both themselves and their relationships through laughter and tears. Although there are a couple of wobbles, "What They Had" is buoyed by its terrific cast, Chicago locations and a surprising moment of spiritual grace in its third act.
By the time Bridget, her rebellious, college averse daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow, arrives, her mother Ruth has been located and examined by a doctor. Bert assures everyone things are now fine and can convert to 'normal,' Ruth's wandering probably the result of some Christmas Eve Scotch. But Nicky is adamant things will only deteriorate, his arguments more emphatic due to the strings a friend has pulled to place mom in memory care with dad in an assisted living apartment fifty yards away. Nicky's born the brunt of emergencies like this, but Bridget wants time to assess the situation, sympathetic to her dad's desire to stay with his wife.
Unbeknownst to all, Bridget is having her own crisis, one which becomes apparent when she acts on an old Junior High attraction to Gerry (William Smillie) when she runs into him at Christmas Mass and contacts him to install interior locks in her parents' condo. Chomko does a great job with her central family crisis, but the side stories come across as muddled, Bridget's marital issues never clarified beyond her feelings of loneliness, her husband, Eddie (Josh Lucas), seemingly intent on getting things back on track when we finally meet him. The same holds true for Emma, who we're told has been thrown out of her dorm for drinking, then gets caught in a lie about signing up for classes in the next term. Both are rebelling against being pigeonholed into other people's dreams, but neither really gains our sympathy. Even the timeline is muddled here, Ruth having wandered off on Christmas Eve, then an entire day passing before Christmas Day rolls around.
Both siblings do come to new understandings with their dad through direct confrontations which Chomko handles with much sharper dialogue hitting its target. Not so with a painfully awkward scene between Bridget and Nick. But when Ruth is the central focus, everything clicks, Bert's ministrations so full of love, Ruth answering the phone by talking to a stapler provoking cleansing laughter. A second episode of Ruth disappearing finds Bridget literally in her father's shoes.
With Swank, Shannon and Foster all enjoying big scenes, Danner's subtle and quieter performance should be noted. She's lovely here, slipping in and out of lucidity, the tentative look of love and hope in her eyes clouding over with fear and uncertainty. Marilyn Dodds Frank plays neighbor Marion, an older, flighty, domineering woman whose pairing with Ruth masks Ruth's confusion, abetting Bert's viewpoint.
The film features a beautiful piece of misdirection as it heads towards its conclusion, before Chomko wraps things up a little too neatly. "What They Had" has its heart in the right place and should touch yours.
Robin also gives "What They Had" a B-.
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