What They Had
Hillary Swank and Michael Shannon were destined to play siblings in cinema. There’s a great familial chemistry between the adult offspring in What They Had, a portrait of a family looking after their Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, whose care is deeply needed when she saunters into a snowstorm at the dawn of the story. Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature is almost entirely powered by the strength of the heavyweight actors, especially Blythe Danner as Ruth Everhardt, the matriarch at the centre of the calamity.
Plain-spoken bar-owner Nicky Everhardt may be Shannon’s most sympathetic character ever, and the quietly conflicted Bridget Ertz is advantageous for Swank’s internal acting strengths. Contrasting their equanimity is father Nobert (Robert Forster), who wrestles with his children about the decision to look after Ruth themselves in their safe domiciliary environment or to put her in a care home, which is anxiously referred to as a “memory centre”.
The whole scenario is cause for much squabbling, which is often brushed aside with a swift laugh or lighthearted comment to prevent the mood from going completely dour. One individual less willing to smile is Bridget’s daughter Emma, played by Taissa Farmiga, who gets to vent neutral frustrations if not much more. Forster is quite theatrical in an intimate movie but his zealous act is legitimised by his character’s military background.
His best scene is a soft one shared only with Danner, whose riveting performance is deeply authentic. What They Had should probably come labelled with a warning that it may be upsetting to watch for those who have dealt with a family member with Alzheimer’s, as a direct result of the actress’s heartbreakingly realistic approach.
They say that every writer has one story in them, and the filmmaker shares her personal odyssey – inspired by her grandparents – through great performances, even if her movie doesn’t quite have the same emotional punch or staying power as some of the top films about dementia such as Amour and Away From Her.
They also say that writers should write what they know, and undoubtedly Chomko knows the true difficulties of this scenario. Her stars are incredibly talented performers but an experienced hand guiding them is what completes the informed outlook on how families deal with such a sensitive situation. She caps off her touching drama with a fairly drawn-out ending that feels like a chance for her to have conversations she never had. It’s bittersweet.
What They Had is released nationwide on 1st March 2019.
Watch the trailer for What They Had here: