Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko’s drama What They Had centres around that familiar concept of a crisis bringing a family together and drawing them closer to each other.
Homecomingby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With the snow falling in wintry Chicago, dementia-suffering matriarch Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes out into the snow and cannot be found. Worried adult son Nick (Michael Shannon) calls upon sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) to come and help him and their father Burt (Robert Forster) first find Ruth and then plan for their parents’ future.
Burt, understandably, does not want to let go of his and Ruth’s life together and a frustrated Nick wants Bridget’s support in persuading him to agree to get their mother into the best ‘memory care’ facility in the city.
Bridget arrives from California with teen daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga in an underwritten role) in tow and it is the family dynamics between these five characters that drive the majority of the film.
The siblings bond and squabble in equal measure as their circumstances and back stories are teased out, though never fully, through their conversations and in their clashes with their father. There are some well-used beats and plot points from both the familial drama and the ‘return home’ story. A chance meeting with an old acquaintance for the unhappily married Bridget does not quite have the expected outcome.
However, the film largely avoids family drama cliché on the strength of the performances. Two-time Oscar winner Swank gives an understated performance as the reserved Bridget, and she and Shannon make for believable siblings with Nick having shouldered the burden of parental care by staying in Chicago. Forster is affecting as the patriarch fighting to hold onto the life he shares with the woman he loves; however, perhaps the best performance comes from Blythe Danner as Ruth.
In a largely supporting role, Ruth is frequently discussed when not on screen: Danner paints a moving portrayal of a woman whose memory and personality are gradually drifting out to sea. One rare lucid, and highly astute, observation late on during a moment of quiet connection with Bridget is deeply moving.
In its subject matter Chomko’s film shares some DNA with Iris (2002), Away From Her (2006) and Still Alice (2014) but with the focus on children of the declining parent it possibly most recalls Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007).
What They Had is certainly a solid entry into the cannon of family illness dramas and again shines a light on the sad effects of dementia and how tough it is for the family of the loved one affected.
What They Had is released on 1 March 2019 in the UK.