What They Had, 2018.
Written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko.
Starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, and Josh Lucas
WHAT THEY HAD centers on a family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to Chicago at her brother’s (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother (Blythe Danner) and her father’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together.
For a film about the terrifying reality of Alzheimer’s disease, Elizabeth Chomko’s highly personal debut writing/directorial effort musters up quite a bit of natural humor from its talented ensemble. There’s a moment where Blythe Danner’s Ruth (an incredibly moving performance oozing with authenticity and sympathetic charm) tries to answer a ringing phone during one of her families frequent arguments regarding what to do about the whole situation, except she picks up a stapler, God bless her soul, even holding the thing up to her ear. At first, everyone is startled by the awkward behavior, but the mood quickly transitions into something lighter to laugh about. Not in a mean-spirited way mind you, as What They Had deftly explores accepting a harsh reality by finding the humor in it.
Already having an established background as a theater actress and a playwright, Elizabeth Chomko confidently draws from those skillsets alongside her own life experiences to whip up some family drama that feels lived in, as if these are real people hashing out the best course of action; an assisted living home, letting the elderly grandparents moved to Florida, or doing nothing at all. Nevertheless, something has to be done considering the film opens with Ruth wandering out and about around Chicago during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve.
Michael Shannon is given a blisteringly funny sardonic presence as one of Ruth’s children, Nick, a bar owner/bartender doing decent for himself aside from his inability to commit to a love interest romantically. The middle-aged grump is consistently the go-to source for his father-in-law Norbert (Robert Forster delivering a strong showing playing on his vulnerability of losing his wife mentally and his stubbornness to remain together and not force her into a place with questionable human care) whenever these incidents arise. However, this particular instance causes his daughter (and Nick’s sister) Bridget (Hilary Swank as the more levelheaded and caring of the siblings, also relieved to get some time away from the rocky relationship with her husband) to fly in from California, popping in to assess the situation. This intergenerational tale also contains the ever-growing welcome presence Taissa Farmiga as Bridget’s daughter, a mildly troubled college student struggling to find her place in the world, which is made more difficult at the expense of one crazy family and deeper problems her mother needs to work out.
It goes without saying that the film might be a heavy watch for those that have gone through similar family dynamics, but What They Had also uses its array of characters spanning three generations to give some commentary on the meaning of love, specifically as commitment. Robert Forster truly is the heart and soul of this compelling piece; you almost want to let the old man have his way even if there is that lingering feeling that, for as coldhearted as Nick’s insistence on assisted-living may seem, might be the proper route to take. Additionally, the opposing viewpoints cost of friction between the siblings paving the way for them to fight and resolve differences of their own.
There is a sensation that for a lot of writers, What They Had would have been too ambitious and attempts too much with its numerous plot threads, but Elizabeth Chomko has a firm grasp on how to weave them all together without spreading characters thin. The banter generally always leads back to their parents, helping the film maintain its central focus even when the siblings are going at it about their own lives. For whatever reason, the third act does dip a little bit too far into sentimentality with some plot developments that don’t work as well as they should. Everything feels organic, and then at a certain point, it feels like you’re watching something considerably less genuine, although the results are still solid enough. There is also a stylistic decision to splice in a home video footage of Ruth and Norbert during a few key emotional moments, which feels unnecessary more than anything. These actors are excellent enough to make us care without resorting to such cloying tactics, especially for what is still a fictional story despite being somewhat semi-autobiographical.
Nonetheless, What They Had marks an outstanding debut for Elizabeth Chomko, who not only carefully crafts a touching story from her own personal pain, but also gives Michael Shannon one of the better roles of his career, which is obviously saying something considering his body of work. Much of his dialogue walks the line between rude yet funny, finding humor in the reality of the situation. In general, the filmmaker knows just what to do with her actors, employing characters that elicit raw sadness alongside awkward laughs.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com