WHAT THEY HAD – Review by Susan Wloszczyna

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“Grandma drank the holy water,” says Taissa Farmiga’s moody college student. “At least she’s hydrated,” says Michael Shannon as her uncle who laughs mostly to keep him and the audience from crying. That first-time filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko can pull off this sort of humor in a movie that revolves around the evil disease that is dementia is a feat achieved primarily based on the strength of her casting choices.

With What We Had, we must believe the family first before we are swayed by a script based on Chomko’s personal story. Why no one before has bothered to cast Shannon, more often than not a disagreeable type, and Hilary Swank, rarely hired for anything these days, as adult siblings is a mystery. Also befuddling is why more films don’t feature the likes of Robert Forster (so good in Jackie Brown and on Breaking Bad) as a crusty, no-nonsense military vet and devoted Catholic who is hell-bent on providing for Blythe Danner as his Alzheimer’s-suffering wife of many decades without resorting to outside assistance. But when mom goes toddling down the road and into the dark during a Chicago snowstorm in just her nightgown and a jacket, it is time for the family to convene.

Unlike the far more honest depiction of what memory loss does to a long union in 2007’s Away From Her, this drama’s beats will feel familiar to most middle-agers who face such decisions with their elderly parents. The one thing Chomko gets so right is how hard it is to acknowledge that maybe your adult kids do have your best interests at heart. To surrender control is as often as hard as not being able to breathe. She allows Forster’s Burt one foolish yet essential humanizing whim – he trades in his sensible Camry for a vintage convertible whose top is not quite operable in the winter weather. His excuse? That he is 75. That is as good as any.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What They Had is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for Nov 2, 2018

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Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for RogerEbert.com. Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to RogerEbert.com, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.