What They Had
Starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas
There are a lot of great heartfelt moments in Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut, including the opening scene where the musical score and images really settle you into your seat. What follows is an intimate look at Alzheimer’s through the eyes of the children dealing with their mother. Oscar winner Hilary Swank is mounting a slow comeback after years of absence dealing with her fathers’ illness (perhaps a reason for her interest in this subject). What impressed me most about this film is the performance from 77-year-old Robert Forster (“The Descendants”) who is typically relegated to supporting parts without much meat. Michael Shannon is also very good, the only other stand out in this cast. What They Had offers so much more than just a few good performance, what your left with days later is the true value.
Nick (Shannon) is resentful of sister Bridget (Swank), who moved to California with her husband (Lucas) and started a family, while he stayed in Chicago to take care of his parents. Nobody is happy in this family except Ruth (Blythe Danner) and that’s because she doesn’t know where she is or who she’s talking to half the time. After Ruth wanders off in the middle of the night, Bridget fly’s in for a tumultuous reunion. Nick feels both parents should be in assisted living and Burt (Forster) the ever-demanding patriarch, dealing with progressive heart issues, forbids it. “She’s my girl. You can’t take my girl away,” he insists.
There is humanity in the family disputes occurring here, dialogues that take us inside a world we hope never to experience and that’s powerful.
“What They Had” is a welcome respite to the superhero movies and violence-inducing horror movies that add nothing to the viewer’s outlook. There is humanity in the family disputes occurring here, dialogues that take us inside a world we hope never to experience and that’s powerful. That’s what Chomko does so well with her script, even if her directing sometimes gets in the way of the story. She balances heartbreaking real-life stuff with constant comic relief that makes this quite an enjoyable film.
“Pick someone you can stand and make a commitment,” Burt advises his daughter… that’s one of the subplots we could have done without. Thousands of films have troubled marriage plots, fewer focus so intimately on family and togetherness when dealing with such a specific and debilitating disease. Swank’s character Bridget is the least interesting person on screen and the double Oscar winner doesn’t do much to change that aside from one particularly strong scene near the end. Identifying what doesn’t quite work about “What they Had” was pretty easy. It’s told from the wrong perspective. Bridget’s marital problems add to the chaos, but feel like they are from a different movie. It’s just not a expansive enough film for all characters we encounter to have a fully fleshed out breakdown. Hopefully, the setbacks don’t cost Forster a supporting nod, because he earns it here.
Despite some structure problems in the script, this is a valuable story about families working through heartbreak.