On the wrong day, or with the wrong cast, What They Had wouldn’t work at all. This family drama about the very real things that unfold when a person begins to enter the advanced stages of a disease like Alzheimer’s could have easily felt contrived and manipulative, but the subject is handled deftly in the hands of playwright/ first time director Elizabeth Chomko.
Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon form a family that feels forced at first, but by the end you feel fully invested in all of their relationships and endeavours. The climate and scenery of Chicago at Christmastime also felt very familiar to this Northern urbanite critic, lending to the film’s overall relatability.
Danner has the challenging task of playing Ruth, the object of concern with her degenerative state reaching dangerous levels when she wonders off in the middle of a freezing cold night. Hilary Swank plays Bridget, the daughter who settled in California with her own family and comes home to figure out what to do about mom, bringing all kinds of her own baggage in tow.Shannon almost steals the show with his most relatable character in recent memory, Nick, a single, tired, cynical man in his 40s trying start a business while looking after his ageing parents. Nick is treated to some of the best bits of dialogue and Shannon doesn’t waste them. Perhaps the most tragic character of all is their father played by Robert Forster, a man who is slowly losing the love of his life, bit by bit, memory by memory.
Among all of this, Chomko still manages to find moments of levity. The result is a mostly sad, occasionally humorous, yet undeniably touching and well acted story about love and loss. It’s hard not to make What They Had sound dreary and clichéd, but to the filmmakers’ credit, it just works.