What They Had (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
What They Had is terrific; a well-written and directed debut by actor-turned-filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko.
The principal actors are all at their very best, including Robert Forster, who plays a husband and father in denial of his wife’s declining health, and terrific sibling consternation generated Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon.
What They Had looks at a parent’s declining health as a means with which to explore the impact that situation has on those around the individual.
Those sensitive to stories like this may find a film which, from an emotional standpoint, may hit too close to home.
What They Had looks like Oscar bait, and that reason alone will turn people away,
No matter how good the film happens to be, some will never allow themselves to get past the formulaic premise.
On the one hand, a drama like What They Had has a number of things working against it from the beginning. A family must come to terms with the realization that the matriarch of their family, Ruth, (Blythe Danner) is sliding deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s disease, and her husband, Burt (Robert Forster), defiantly denies anything is wrong.
Then, when savvy moviegoers check the calendar and see a movie like this roll out in October and November, prime Oscar season, they will think “Oscar bait!” and immediately dismiss the movie as simply trying to win Oscars for all involved.
And I get it: History has given us numerous examples of emotional, heartfelt dramas that have wanted that Little Golden Guy so bad they have sold their soul mere moments into the story being told on screen. We get frustrated. Critics get angry. The movie is out of theaters in a few weeks and Oscar never comes calling its name.
This, however, feels different.
Written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko, What They Had is not quite the movie you are expecting. Yes, it tells that story, and adds some melodramatic subplots into the mix. Chomko proves herself as a very gifted writer, with smart, personal dialogue amplified by fantastic acting from a richly talented ensemble. And as we settle into the film, What They Had becomes one of the most rewarding surprises of the year.
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swink plays Bridget, just past the age of 40, with daughter Emma in college (Taissa Farmiga), and a settled-in home life with her husband of 20 years, Eddie (Josh Lucas). Bridget lies awake at night, her mind racing through a series of thoughts about where she is at in her life, the nature of her closest relationships, and much, much more. Her brother Nicky (Michael Shannon) is closest, geographically, to their parents, and when Ruth wanders off in the middle of a snowy night during the Christmas season, Nicky summons his sister and niece to come see Mom and Dad pronto.
Nicky is at his wit’s end. He reports that Ruth is sliding rapidly into dementia, but Burt laughs it off and dismisses any notion that there is a problem. Where others would write contrived, preachy, showy scenes of family strife and distress, What They Had sprinkles a few of those moments in a larger context. Specifically, Chomko knows we have seen dozens of Alzheimer’s movies before. Have we ever really explored the effect it has on everyone else?
At the risk of making Ruth a secondary character, Chomko keeps her ailment and escalating difficulties at the forefront of each conversation, situation, and development, even if Ruth is not in a scene or Danner is not on camera. This adds weight to moments other movies often take for granted.
When Emma and her mother clash over a decision on whether Emma should return to college after winter break, the argument has an added layer of decision-making and depth. When Nicky struggles with communicating his emotions, or handling personal stress and efforts to keep his bar open, Ruth and Burt are significant to those struggles and concerns.
Danner threads the needle on not overplaying or trivializing Ruth’s struggles and imminent decline. Forster’s Burt is defiant, proud, but scared of so many things he never thought about facing alone. Shannon and Swank grouse their way into palpable chemistry, and Swank adds agency to Bridget, increasingly in the second half of the film that delivers quite an emotional wallop.
Naysayers might very well have a field day with What They Had. And there are things which do not work all that well. A subplot involving Bridget’s marriage to Eddie is underwritten, and her stumbling upon an old high school friend seems unnecessary. At times, the film rushes through scenes and details which feel important, languishes in a few others.
However, if proper pacing and a couple of first-time filmmaker stumbles proves to be a death knell for What They Had, then so be it. Sure, the film may be conceived from a formulaic premise which feels familiar, but Chomko takes her film in unanticipated places and leaves quite a lasting impression.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie.
Director: Elizabeth Chomko
Written by: Elizabeth Chomko
Release Date: October 19, 2018
Bleecker Street Media