Boasting believable, lived-in performances from a veteran cast, a relatable situation, and an exceptionally strong and sensitive script, Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut feature, What They Had, is a moving family drama about the harsh and humorous realities of living and coping with the deepening dementia of Alzheimer’s and the upheaval it brings to loving caregivers.
Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, the restlessly married mom of college-age daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who gets a middle-of-the-night call after her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), wanders out into the street. Bridget heads home to Chicago, where her dad, Burt (Robert Forster), assures her that all is well and he has things in hand — but Bridget’s brother, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who’s had a much closer view to what’s going on, begs to differ.
What follows is an often-messy, sometimes-funny, sometimes-heartbreaking, always tender look at a family negotiating the kind of crisis that’s simultaneously everyday and monumental. And all of the characters feel real. That’s thanks to both Chomko’s organic, well-observed script and the actors’ detailed, specific performances.
All of the leads are excellent, playing to their strengths. Chomko gives them all opportunities to shine, and they deliver, from Danner’s powerful moments when Ruth is suddenly, poignantly completely present, to Swank’s convincing blend of concern and exasperation as Bridget. Nobody here is perfect, but they all love each other in their own way, and they do want what’s best for everyone. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: When Ruth (Blythe Danner), an Alzheimer’s sufferer, walks out of her Chicago condo into a snowstorm with only a sweater to cover her nightgown, her husband of 60 years (Robert Forster) and children (Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank) must wrestle with the painful decision of whether it is time for her to enter a memory care home. The family dysfunction and resentments that bubble up during WHAT THEY HAD aren’t unexpected, nor are the confrontational duets from first-time director/screenwriter Elizabeth Chomko. What I found so refreshing about the film may only appeal to native Chicagoans like Chomko and me—the specificity of the mise-en-scène and the dead-on portrayals of native Chicagoans. Forster, always a welcome presence, nails the accent. More than that, he understands this fiercely devoted husband whose belief in the hard work and commitment of marriage is out of step with the modern lives of his children, but nonetheless provides them with a guide for living the truth of their lives. Danner is on screen far less than I expected, but in just the right proportion to make her searing tragedy as a woman who is losing her world deeply felt.
Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.
Nikki Baughan: Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon put in commanding central performances as feuding siblings in writer/director Elizabeth Chomko’s poignant drama about the ties that bind. With differing views about how to manage their elderly mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s and their father’s refusal to seek outside help, the pair engage in plenty of verbal sparring, but never lose sight of the genuine love which underpins it all. That could be said for the film itself, which takes a clear-eyed view on the devastating effects such an illness can have while still indulging in colourful, relatable moments of humour and warmth as the family pulls together. Blythe Danner is magnificent as the woman losing herself to the illness, shafts of light occasionally cutting through the fog to remind her of who she was, and what she’s lost.
Kristen Page-Kirby It would be easy to think of What They Had as a movie about a woman with dementia. It’s really about the family of a woman with dementia and what happens when she becomes the focus of everyone’s attention. Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko never veers into the maudlin (the movie is often darkly funny in the way life can be) and has the good sense to let her actors carry the story. As brother and sister, Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon — proving, as always, that Michael Shannon improves every movie he’s in— embody the cuttingly loving and lovingly cutting relationship siblings often share, particularly when both think the other is the favored one. (I would definitely watch the short film of the two actors simply and kindly crabbing at one other.) What They Had is a solidly real, occasionally deeply touching, look at how a family comes together when one member is coming apart.
MaryAnn Johanson Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut film is a simultaneously sharp and tender portrait of longstanding, interconnected family squabbles and hidden resentments, powered by achingly affecting performances and oh-so-many poignant details that ground it in melancholy authenticity. Its bitter humor rings true, too. But I love that this is mostly the tale of Hilary Swank’s Bridget, and how dealing with her parents in a moment of crisis, yet one during which their devotion to each other never flags, highlights how unhappy she is in her own marriage. What They Had is yet another installment in the burgeoning cinematic subgenre of Women Who Are Done Putting Everyone Else First, and I am here for it. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin What They Had, the first feature from actress-turned-writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, is a stirring family drama in which adult siblings, Bridget (Hilary Swank) and Nick (Michael Shannon) are trying to cope with their mother’s (Blythe Danner) progressive dementia and their father’s (Robert Forster) denial of her disability. Chomko’s well-crafted script and sensitive direction, and the superb performances from the stellar ensemble bring a balance of heartbreak and humor to this painful and entirely relatable situation.
Loren King Pangs of authenticity fill Elizabeth Chomko‘s debut feature What They Had and with good reason. Chomko based her film on her own experience with her grandmother’s dementia and the home movies we see in this tender family drama belong to her. The family dynamics and emotional push-pull in Chomko’s story of how various family members deal with the reality of Alzheimer’s Disease has a truthfulness that feels earned. Read full review.
Anne Brodie: Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play siblings who find themselves in a place many will find familiar, when the realisation hits that their parents are no longer able to live independently in What They Had. Blythe Danner’s character suffers from Alzheimer’s but denies anything is amiss, and fronts, joking about her missteps and memory loss. Her husband, played by Robert Forster refuses to allow her to be placed in a home for care; they’re fine, they can do it, he can look after her on his own. The children gather when it becomes clear an intervention is needed, and unwittingly set off an emotional bomb. They have zero experience to cope with the fast changing family dynamic and then the unthinkable happens. This is tough stuff sensitively delivered via compelling performances from all. Writer director Elizabeth Chomko was inspired by her family’s experiences with her grandmother.
Sandie Angulo Chen: I saw What They Had at Middleburg Film Festival, where Elizabeth Chomko described her directorial debut as a labor of love inspired by her late grandparents. She recalled the epic love her grandparents shared, and how devastating it was to witness her grandmother slowly forgetting who her grandfather even was – and so Elizabeth rewrote the end of their story in this film. That love, that care, that emotion comes through in the film – with Blythe Danner and Robert Forster giving beautifully nuanced performances as Ruth and Burt, a married Chicago couple together for nearly 50 years and now dealing with the impact of Ruth’s Alzheimer’s dementia. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon round out the incredible ensemble as Ruth and Burt’s adult children Bridget and Nick, with Taissa Farmiga playing Bridget’s college-aged daughter Emma. Everything in the family drama is touchingly authentic and relatable – from Bridget and Nick’s sibling and parental issues to Burt’s insistence that he – and not a memory care facility or even his kids – is best qualified to watch over his bride. Through Bridget’s character, Chomko’s debut is also a poignant examination of “sandwich generation” challenges – when you’re parenting both your children and your own parents — and Swank is wonderful playing someone who isn’t sure what’s best for herself – much less her mom or her daughter. Shannon and Swank’s chemistry is so effortless, I hope they – and Chomko — make another film together soon.
Pam Grady: Elizabeth Chomko delivers a polished debut with this compelling depiction of the impact on a family of its matriarch’s worsening Alzheimer’s. In many ways, the drama is a portrait of a marriage as Burt (Robert Forster) remains devoted to wife Ruth (Blythe Danner) and determined to keep her with him at home. And while the film is very much about whether Ruth should be in long-term care or in the arms of her spouse, it also exposes long simmering tensions between father and son Nick (Michael Shannon) and puts her own marital woes in sharp relief for daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank). While Danner and Shannon are superb, the movie belongs to Swank, excellent as a woman adverse to hard decisions to her own detriment, and Forster, fabulous as a gruff man with a large reserve of tenderness for his spouse. Those performances go a long way toward overcoming the film’s sometimes stagy dialogue that betrays Chomko’s roots as a playwright.
Cate Marquis What They Had draws a moving and remarkably accurate picture of the challenges grown children face when a parent has Alzheimers. It is a crisis increasing number of families will face with a disease that only ever gets worse. Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko drew on her own family’s experience for this family drama that is boldly truthful as well as engrossing. Read full review.
Title: What They Had
Directors: Elizabeth Chomko
Principal Cast: Jilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga
Release Date: October 19, 2018 (limited)
Running Time: 101 minutes
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Chomko
Distribution Company: Bleecker Street Media
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin