Calmly observing one family struggling with their difficult personal matter, “What They Had” gives us an intimate drama packed with small but effective emotional moments which let us understand and emphasize with its main characters. As one of them is fading away day by day, the rest of them conflict with each other over what they should do under their circumstance, and it is often sad and poignant to watch how their conflict arrives in its eventual resolution as they try to deal with not only their circumstance but also old personal feelings among them.
The movie opens with a sudden emergent situation for them. During one cold, snowy winter night in Chicago, Ruth Everhardt (Blythe Danner), an old woman who has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, walks out of her residence where she has lived with her husband Norbert (Robert Forster), and, after discovering her disappearance, Norbert immediately calls their two children Bridget (Hillary Swank) and Nicholas (Michael Shannon). Around the time when Bridget comes to Chicago from her home in LA along with her college student daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), Ruth is already found and then sent to a local hospital for medical examination, but Bridget and Nicholas become very concerned about their mother for a good reason. While their father is quite determined to take care of his wife as long as he can, there will soon come a point where his wife will not remember him anymore, and he also may not live that long due to his heart problem.
As understandably tired of his parents’ circumstance, Nicholas suggests to his sister that they should take their parents to a nursing home for preventing another trouble, but Bridget hesitates while Norbert remains adamant about taking care of Ruth for himself. As a man who has been married to his dear wife for more than 60 years, he simply cannot imagine letting her go away from him, and he strongly believes he can take care of her better than those nursing home employees despite his weakening health.
While Nicholas and Norbert clash over what is the best for Ruth, Bridget tries to make a decision, but she only finds herself more hesitating than before, and she also comes to face her personal problems. As she casually admits to her brother, her married life during last 20 years has not been as happy as she wanted, and she also does not get along particularly well with her daughter, who turns out to have her own personal problem. Not long after meeting one of her childhood friends, Bridget decides to meet him again with a suitable excuse, and that eventually leads to a rather funny moment which elicited a small chuckle from me during my viewing.
In the meantime, the state of Ruth’s mind gets worse and worse, and her children become more worried about that while her husband keeps trying to maintain the status quo. She frequently cannot remember who she is at present, and she does not even recognize her husband and children at times while occasionally showing erratic behaviors. At one point, she believes Norbert is her boyfriend, and he willingly goes along with that because, well, he cares about her happiness more than anything else.
While the story eventually becomes melodramatic as required, director/writer Elizabeth Chomko handles her story and characters with considerable sensitivity and thoughtfulness. The strained relationships between the main characters in the film are both convincing and engaging enough to hold our attention, and we come to care about them while also understanding their respective positions.
Chomoko also draws good performances from her main performers. Hilary Swank, who has somehow been under-utilized during recent years despite winning two Oscars for “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), is fine as a conflicted woman who comes to reflect more on her life as dealing with her family problem, and she is especially wonderful when her character treads on a tricky emotional circumstance with that aforementioned childhood friend of hers. Michael Shannon, an intense actor who has always been interesting to watch since his Oscar-nominated breakout turn in “Revolutionary Road” (2008), is solid as usual, and he and Swank are constantly believable during several private scenes between their characters. While Robert Forster, an ever-reliable veteran actor who has steadily worked since his debut in John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), has a number of touching moments which shows more of his character’s love and dedication to his wife, Blythe Danner, who is no stranger to playing mother as shown from numerous films including “The Great Santini” (1979), “The Prince of the Tides” (1991), and “Meet the Parents” (2000), does a lot more than looking baffled and confused as demanded, and Taissa Farmiga, who is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, holds her own small place well among her co-performers.
Although it lags a bit during its final 20 minutes, the movie still works thanks to Chomko’s competent direction and her main performers’ commendable acting, and I was especially moved by a subdued dramatic moment you have to see for yourself. What follows after that is as bittersweet as expected, and the last shot of the film will probably linger on your mind for a while – especially if you know anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“What They Had” is the first feature film by Chomko, who mainly worked as an actress before making this directorial debut of hers. As far as I can see from the film, she is a good filmmaker who knows how to engage us, and it will be interesting to watch what will come next from her. In short, this small drama film is one of the notable debut works of last year, and it surely deserves more attention in my trivial opinion.