At first glance, you might mistake What They Had for one of those well-meaning family dramas about what to do when your mom is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But that would discount the exceptional accomplishment achieved by debuting director Elizabeth Chomko, enlivening her scrappy script with a cast of actors who truly are as good as it gets. You laugh as much as you cry, which means you believe in the movie’s truth.
The ever-glorious Blythe Danner excels as Ruth, a senior-care nurse who starts showing signs of dementia. She leaves her apartment on a snowy Chicago morning, wearing just a nightgown and gets on a train heading for the long-gone home of her childhood. Her husband Bert (Robert Forster) turns a blind eye, bristling like the military man he was when his son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), says it’s time to get Mom institutionalized. Dad’s heartache is palpable. Enter daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank), in from Los Angeles with her own daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), still smarting over getting kicked out of her college dorm for being drunk and disorderly. Bridget gets to cast the deciding vote on what to do with mom since she has power of attorney for both her parents.
The subject of memory loss has been tackled before in such acclaimed films as Still Alice and Away From Her. But Chomko, an actor and playwright, is drawing from the lives of her own grandparents. And she doesn’t tread delicately. This is a family that shouts together, that leaves bruises, that cackles at things that would crush others. “Mom hit on me,” declares Nicky, a remark that breaks up Bridget but poleaxes their uptight, Catholic dad. Later, at the dinner table, the elderly woman blurts out, “I’m having a baby.” The remark draws wide grins from her adult children. Ruth smiles, too, in uncomprehending wonder.
What They Had is most impressive when it shows how Alzheimer’s doesn’t affect just one person, but everyone who comes close. Chomko handles the family dynamics with wicked skill and a keen eye for nuance. Shannon is at his brawling best as Nicky, trying to bully his father into compliance the way dad has always bullied him (like calling him a bartender when he knows full well that his son owns the bar). And Swank cuts straight to the heart as the daughter struggling with what feels right as opposed to what actually is right. Dad has pushed her into a marriage with a careerist (Josh Lucas) she now seems to resent. Bridget rebels by staging a makeout session with an old boyfriend (William Smillie) she’s clearly using to act out. Swank’s performance is poignant perfection. You can feel her pain when Bridget stares at through-the-years photos of her parents that fill their apartment, reminding Bridget that what she has falls far short of what they had. And Forster just crushes it as the husband who can’t let his wife go. “She’s my girl,” he pleads to anyone who will listen.
Chances are that audiences will know exactly what he means, so potent is Chomko’s tough-and-tender examination of what makes a family. For all its comic punch, this captivating film resonates with a sadness and sympathy that cross generational barriers. Movies this rich in observational detail, emotional focus and acting artistry are rare. Watch out for What They Had. It can sneak up and floor you.