Elizabeth Chomko, in her feature film debut as both a writer and director, delivers a layered, complex, and touching story of family in the midst of dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s. What They Had is haunting, emotional, and everything from the acting to the unfolding of the story is beautifully crafted.
Bridget (Hilary Swank) flies halfway across the country with her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), after her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), suffering from Alzheimer’s, flees her home and can’t be found. Nick (Michael Shannon), Bridget’s brother, is fed up and frustrated with trying to keep up with and ensure their mother’s safety. He’s always walking on eggshells around his father, Burt (Robert Forster), and they butt heads constantly about how to handle Ruth. Exhausted from doing taking care of their parents on his own, Nick implores Bridget to convince their stubborn father that Ruth should live in home where professionals can better care for her. But Burt is unwilling to let his wife go and believes he can take better care of her. Meanwhile, Bridget is dealing with her own issues at home, unhappy in her marriage of almost two decades and trying to not constantly argue with her daughter at every turn.
Intertwining family drama with Alzheimer’s-related drama is a lot to handle, but Chomko takes it on with the utmost care. What They Had is poignant and deeply intimate. The film is romantic in some instances, with the way Burt treats Ruth, and also realistic in the way the family relationships are handled. There is so much depth to the characters and layers to every relationship and the moments of anger and frustration are balanced with moments of love and it’s heart-achingly beautiful to watch unfold.
Bridget carries a lot of resentment with her. She isn’t thrilled with the way her life has turned out and wants better for her daughter, but they clearly don’t have the same future in mind. The film is particularly good at handling parent/child relationships. Bridget is disappointed that Emma doesn’t want to finish college and it’s that disappointment, regardless of the reasons, that hurts Emma. How do you reconcile that you might not be enough for your parents sometimes? Likewise, Bridget is disappointed that her own parents didn’t want more from her besides getting married and lies to her dad about how happy she is; Nick is hurt because Burt is disappointed he didn’t do anything else with his life besides own a bar. It’s a cycle that plays out over and over again over generations and it’s exquisitely executed here.
At the heart of the story is Burt’s love for Ruth. Their relationship is intriguing because his life lesson to his kids is that “love is a commitment, there are no bells and whistles.” It isn’t something you do because you love someone, it’s not a fairytale and yet, his love for Ruth is enduring, a light in the dark. No matter how far away her mind takes her, or that her Alzheimer’s is so bad that she often doesn’t know who he is, Burt is loyal and unwilling to live without Ruth for a moment. Even while everything else is falling apart and honest conversations between his children are had, the love Burt and Ruth share holds them together and warms the heart.
Hilary Swank is exceptionally good in this role. Her portrayal of Bridget as a lonely, unhappy, and resentful woman is fantastic. She just wants to be happy, but doesn’t know what that looks like and Swank nails the varying emotions Bridget is feeling so well that you feel and understand what she’s going through every step of the way. In fact, one of the film’s strengths is giving everyone a point of view. Such as with Michael Shannon’s Nick, who comes off like an asshole sometimes, but whose frustration and exhaustion are understood and well-handled. Nick is grumpy and fed up, but also caring and worried and Shannon does a wonderful job conveying all of these emotions.
Filled with laughter and tears, love and anger, Elizabeth Chomko delivers one of the best films of the year. Intricately woven together, beautifully acted, and full of power in its simplicity and depth, What They Had is full of heart and a willingness to explore the complicated dynamics of family through hardship.
What They Had is haunting, emotional, and everything from the acting to the unfolding of the story is beautifully crafted.