While plenty of films and stories have been crafted about families struggling to make the right logistical and emotional decisions when loved ones are in the throes of potentially terminal illness, writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature What They Had is one of the funniest, sincerest, most realistic, and best performed. Bolstered by sharp, perceptive writing and one of the best cast on screen families of all time, What They Had is the rare example of a tearjerker that earns its status naturally and mostly without manipulation or provocation. The key to buying into a film like What They Had is believing that the characters could be people viewers know and that their struggles could be their own. There isn’t a moment in What They Had where that doesn’t ring truthfully and honestly.
Shortly before Christmas, west coast chef Bridget (Hilary Swank) is called to her hometown of Chicago by her frantic brother, Nick (Michael Shannon). Bridget returns, with her hard partying university dropout daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), in tow to check on her father, Burt (Robert Forster), and mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner). Ruth has been living with Alzheimer’s Disease for the past eight years, and her condition has only been worsening. Burt has a heart condition and can’t do much to keep tabs on his wife at all times. He also staunchly refuses to put Ruth into an assisted living facility, stating that his wife worked in nursing homes long enough to know that she’d never want to live there. After Ruth nearly goes missing on a snowy, sub-zero evening, Nick, the closest living relative and therefore frequently called upon emergency contact, reaches the end of his rope. Nick pleads with Bridget to talk some sense into mom and dad regarding their situation, while simultaneously resenting that his distant sister hasn’t had to endure the constant life upending he’s been putting up with for years. Nicky thinks they both belong in a home. Burt refuses to believe medical facts and has a pie in the sky idea that moving to Florida with Ruth will make everything better and more manageable. Ultimately, the final say belongs to Bridget who holds power of attorney, and she finds herself caught between her brother and her father’s differing, but interlocked desperation.
Swank, Shannon, Forster, and Danner boast note perfect familial chemistry, and Chomko’s perceptive, layered, and frequently witty script finds itself in great hands. While Danner (playing her second dementia addled character of the year after Hearts Beat Loud) has to purposefully play a character whose rapidly erasing narrative arc is locked away in the recesses of her damaged mind, she still finds a great amount of warmth, strength, and likability in Ruth. It’s difficult to portray a character with an honest form of dementia. They’re often frightened people who don’t understand the world around them, which means that writers will frequently attempt to overcompensate and place these characters in outlandish situations. Chomko thankfully never does, meaning that Danner doesn’t have to do anything that feels less than authentic. At the same time, Chomko never shies away from depicting life around Ruth as anything less than frustrating, and at times Danner does a fine job of making the viewer see her as a vexing presence. But beneath it all is love, and there are few things truer to such an experience as depicting love. People with Alzheimer’s Disease might not remember the people sitting across from them or what they ate, but they’re always striving to seek comfort and acceptance. Danner and Chomko work diligently together to create pure and unfiltered love at the centre of the film.
Forster, in one of his career best performances, mixes a lot of other emotions with his character’s undying love for his wife. What They Had comes with a healthy subtext regarding Catholic guilt and devotion, and most of it has to be delivered through Forster’s true believer. For Burt, “to death do us part” is to be taken seriously and literally to the grave. By protecting his wife’s wishes, Burt puts himself through his own emotional crucifixion, lashing out at anyone close to him that dares to question his fidelity to Ruth. Burt sometimes seems oblivious or purposefully in denial that he can’t handle the task of looking after Ruth on his own anymore, and genuine concerns raised by his kids are either batted away like a gnat or defensively addressed as if someone just pulled a gun on him. He’s hurting, and while he might not be making his wife’s already distressing condition any worse off than she already is, he’s definitely trampling on the feelings of children that genuinely care about their parents, even if they express their concerns in vastly different ways. Forster exceptionally portrays a man trying desperately trying to hang onto the greatest love of his life. Like Danner’s work, it’s a performance of pure love.
Forster’s performance in What They Had dovetails nicely with the work put in by Shannon as the fed-up and exhausted brother. Setting aside for a moment that the pairing of Swank and Shannon as siblings is one of the best bits of casting in recent memory, What They Had taps perfectly into the skill set that made the actor such an enigmatic, humourous, and imposing presence. Nicky, who burns the candle at both ends looking after mom and pop and running a semi-successful and trendy bar, has stopped taking crap from his tough talking, bullying old man, and he’s frustrated that his father suddenly can’t take his own advice. He’s blunt, sarcastic, brutally honest, and sometimes downright caustic. He’s an asshole at times, but he’s always sympathetic and understandable. Anyone who’s ever had to take care of an ailing, obstinate family member will immediately recognize his weariness and frustration. Nicky’s cutting, darkly comedic jabs and irate dust-ups are the kinds of cinematic moments that Shannon has become known for as an actor, but here those talents are put to genuine and empathetic use, and not merely to provoke a judgmental reaction. Again, this is a performance and a character of pure love.
The flip-side of Nicky’s karmic coin is the confused and somewhat directionless Bridget, and it gives Swank, who hasn’t had this great of a role in quite some time, plenty to sink her teeth into. Swank has to provide the temperamental middle ground of What They Had, but one could easily argue that both Nicky and Burt have a better handle on their personal lives. Her husband (Josh Lucas) stays behind, and Bridget doesn’t exactly seem broken up about it, quickly developing eyes for a former childhood friend. Her daughter has been kicked out of school and shows no desire to reapply, but instead of digging deeper and asking questions about the matters at hand, Bridget just reacts with naysaying and shouting. She’s willing to let her father emotionally push her around, and she barely fights back when Nicky calls her out for not having a backbone. She’s doing her best to listen and process everything going on around her, and while Nicky has clearly already broken down, there’s a sense that she isn’t far behind. She doesn’t know what to do, and Swank balances her character’s moral strength and resolve with a hefty dose of uncertainty. If Nicky has stopped caring out of a need to survive, Bridget has gone in the exact opposite direction and started caring too much. Love is at the heart of all of this.
Chomko’s direction isn’t particularly flashy, nor does it need to be when her dialogue and choice of actors are so exemplary. The staging and blocking are destined to earn What They Had comparisons to a stage play, but in this case such a distinction is a favourable one. She knows precisely what needs to be said, when it has to be delivered to make the most impact, and exactly how her characters should respond. Everyone involved with the making of What They Had brings with them a sense that they know and understand these feelings all too well. At times, their interactions are almost too real, and What They Had feels like peeking in on a necessary, overdue bit of family therapy. There aren’t any punches being pulled, and while Chomko could be mining her material for cheap sentimentality, she’s taking a more difficult and organic approach, careful to bring out every bit of awkwardness and discomfort inherent in the character interactions without skewing them to wring unearned tears from the audience. What They Had is a sad story, but it’s never falsely tragic. These characters all need to learn something about themselves, and we want to root for them to make these self discoveries. They might not admit that they love each other, but they do, and in turn, we want to love them.
What They Had places most of its narrative energy at the tricky, fraught big picture issue at hand, so it’s somewhat disappointing whenever Chomko’s small handful of character asides pop up to fall flat. Farmiga is a fine addition to Chomko’s phenomenal cast, but Emma’s problems feel more like distractions than well integrated story beats. The addition of a new generational bridge into the family’s full force dysfunction sounds like a good idea in theory, but it comes across as underdeveloped here. Similarly, Bridget’s unhappy marriage might be crumbling under the weight of her delicate emotional state at the moment, but scenes where the viewer wonders if she’s going to cheat on her husband feel like one layer too many for such a tightly constructed script to sustain. These elements are well performed, empathetic, and they never topple the film at any point, but there’s always a sense that there’s more to these narratives that remains just beyond the viewer’s comprehension.
Chomko watched someone she love fall victim to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease over the course of seventeen years, and Swank took an extended break from act as a primary caregiver to her father following a lung transplant. It’s evident from every frame that they understand precisely how deeply linked longing, worrying, and grief can be in situations like these. Swank’s co-stars probably realize it just the same on some level. What They Had is a meticulous film about people who’ve lost the ability to speak carefully, and every awkward, hilarious, and heartbreaking moment is delivered with authentic conviction and grace. I saw some of my own personal struggles in dealing with ailing loved ones reflected in Chomko’s work, and no doubt others will see the same and probably more. It’s one of the most humane and unflinching dramas of the year.
What They Had opens in Toronto (Canada Square) and Vancouver on Friday, October, 26, 2018. It expands to additional Canadian cities in the coming weeks.
Check out the trailer for What They Had:
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