Chicago native Elizabeth Chomko’s bittersweet debut “What They Had” takes a look at a delicate subject but does so in a way that is sure to speak to the hearts of many who watch it. Chomko pulls from her personal experience of having a grandmother diagnosed with dementia and being part of the family struggling to deal with it. Her film captures the heartbreak while also showing a warmth and sense of humor that gives it a stamp of reality.
Chomko wrote and directed the film which instantly gets off on the right foot by putting together a superb cast. The film opens with Ruth (Blythe Danner) putting on her coat, leaving her apartment, and then vanishing into the cold Chicago night. Turns out Ruth has entered a new stage of her dementia that could end up being more than her husband Bert (Robert Forster) can handle.
Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon) calls his sister Bitty (Hillary Swank) to let her know their mother is missing. They find Ruth but the incident convinces Nicky that their mother belongs in a nursing home. He convinces his sister to help persuade their father who is vehemently against it.
The bulk of Chomko’s film centers around this family and their attempts to reckon with the reality of Ruth’s condition. Bert, a no-nonsense devout Catholic, wants no part of “the best memory care place in Chicago” (as Nicky sells it). This adds to the already present tension between father and son. Bitty takes a more middle-ground approach which draws the ire of both Nicky and Bert.
An intertwined family drama with such a sensitive subject at its core is tricky ground. It’s even trickier when you approach it with a sense of humor. Chomko has spoken about the joy of laughter and how her family’s willingness to laugh helped them cope. Her movie gives us a really good image of how that works. “What They Had” makes you laugh in a way that can feel wrong at times but makes sense when considered in its narrative context. And Chomko deserves a ton of credit for having such a sensitive touch.
The one place the film suffers is in its well-intended effort to dig deeper into the characters. Several subplots intersect with the central story but none are really given the time and attention they need. The biggest is centered around the strained relationship between Bitty and her college-weary daughter Emma (played by a very good young actress Taissa Farmiga). The two actresses share several good scenes but you never get a good handle on their relationship. There are a few others that leave you wanting to know more.
It’s hard to not be moved by “What They Had” and its tender but true handling of its difficult subject. Perhaps most impressive is Chomko’s ability to capture the heart-rending helplessness of both Ruth and her family. You feel it in every character and every performance (again the cast is so good). But you sense it most in Chomko’s writing and you never doubt its deeply personal origins.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS