Why do families continue to fascinate on the big screen? Maybe because, amid the superheroes and fantasies that dazzle us, great films about family mirror our own lives, illuminating us at our best while reassuring us about our imperfections. Elizabeth Chomko contributes something new and valuable to the canon with What They Had. Based on her own screenplay, which won a coveted Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this is a story of a family drawing closer even as illness threatens to tear it apart.
Bridget (two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank) is forced to fly back home when her mother’s cognitive decline leads to life-threatening actions. As she falls deeper into Alzheimer’s disease, Ruth (Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams) recedes from everyday matters; she is fragile, but never fails to cut to the quick of what counts. Bridget’s brother Nicky (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water, Mud) refuses to indulge any sentiment about Ruth’s illness. His hard pragmatism may just be his way of masking his pain at the thought of losing his mother, but it gnaws at the family’s already-tenuous connections nonetheless.
Chomko perfectly captures the rhythm of this group—the roles each has come to play, the conversations carried on in shorthand, the resentments and loyalties that define who each is to one another. Certain scenes look, sound, and feel transported from real life. In addition to the rich, authentic sibling dynamic that Swank and Shannon create, supporting performances from Robert Forster and Taissa Farmiga deepen the story as Ruth’s behaviour pushes her family to a breaking point. For anyone who has lived, loved, suffered, and grown among family, What They Had offers many rewards.
“There’s raw power in Chomko’s writing, but so much scrupulousness and craft that you feel safe when the time comes to weep. An Alzheimer’s Story That’s Both Heartbreaking and … Funny.” (David Edelstein, Vulture)
“An excellent cast hit the right notes in an evenly wrought family drama that rings true.” (Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail)