Alzheimer’s is sad for those who have it and tragic for the people who love them. Seeing someone you care about slowly lose themselves until they are just a bunch of scattered memories is a very difficult experience. What They Had is a touching, emotional drama centered on a family struggling to decide what to do with a relative who is sinking ever deeper into Alzheimer’s. It is less about what is happening and more about the family realizing what they are losing, or have already lost. Elizabeth Chomko (in her writing/directing debut) based the movie on her own family’s experience with her Grandmother. She handles the subject matter with the utmost delicacy, creating a loving portrait of a group of people at a tough crossroads.
The family members all have individual problems that come into sharper focus as Ruth gets worse. Burt, Ruth’s husband, cannot even fathom being away from her. His love runs so deep that the fleeting moments where she remembers make up for all of the other moments. Their daughter, Bridget, lives across the country with her own family and rarely visits. She is brought home by a desperate call from her brother, Nick. He lives near their parents, thus making him responsible for them by default. Their personal resentments and grievances come out as Bridget, Nick and Burt argue about what to do with Ruth.
Family conflicts are hard enough; throw them into a fraught situation and a lot of buried feelings can come out. These are sad people playing their familiar roles while discovering those roles may not work for them anymore. Chomko never lets it turn into theatrics. Unlike The Leisure Seeker, a dramedy following a woman on a road trip with her Alzheimer’s suffering husband, What They Had (94 minutes without the end credits) does not trivialize its topic or play memory loss for laughs.
Chomko assembled a fantastic cast that gives the production a huge boost. Bridget is played by Hilary Swank as a woman who is living her life based on who she thought she wanted to be, as opposed to who she is. Swank is really good at underplaying what could have been an easy role to dump a lot of emotions into. Nick is played by the great Michael Shannon as a man who has a somewhat combative relationship with his father and resents his sister for leaving him to take care of their parents. Shannon is gifted at delivering potentially insulting lines like he has to say it because of how much he cares. Robert Forster is Burt, the stubborn patriarch. He knows what his wife needs and refuses to hear otherwise. It is a challenging part because he only seems to play the one note. There is more going on in his head than he wants to let on. It is a nicely contained performance that perfectly matches Blythe Danner’s portrayal of a woman trying hard to remember, but unable to do much about it.
What They Had is a smart, honest, very well-acted drama. There are a couple of scenes that ring mildly false and a subplot involving Bridget that, while it made sense for her arc, failed to add to the overall story. When the movie sticks to its themes of love, loss and memory it is quite effective. For those lucky enough to not have had someone close to them suffer from memory loss, What They Had captures it pretty realistically.
3¾ out of 5
Hilary Swank as Bridget
Michael Shannon as Nick
Robert Forster as Burt
Blythe Danner as Ruth
Taissa Farmiga as Emma
Written and Directed by Elizabeth Chomko