"What They Had" is simply too real to be minimized as or labeled a disease-of-the-week weeper. In spite of certain familiar narrative threads, its personal nature is emblazoned on nearly every scene. Tackling a familial slice-of-life revolving around a matriarch suffering from Alzheimer's, debuting writer-directing Elizabeth Chomko keys into the truthful human interactions between people trying to grasp the new normal of parenting parents.
Los Angeles-based Bridget (Hilary Swank) is at a crossroads, grappling with a marriage she wants out of but not quite courageous enough to make this life-changing move. Her personal life is suddenly put on the back-burner when straight-talking brother Nick (Michael Shannon) summons her to their hometown of Chicago after ailing mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes missing during a Christmas Eve snowstorm. She is ultimately found safe by the time Bridget and her moody college-aged daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) arrive, but it is the catalyst these siblings need to decide it may be time to move their mom to a memory care facility. Convincing their dad Bert (Robert Forster), who isn't ready to let go of his soulmate, will be more difficult.
Fair or not, "What They Had" is similar enough to 2014's "Still Alice
" to invite inevitable comparison. While Alice, suffering from Early-onset Alzheimer's disease, was undoubtedly the lead of her story (it was told predominately from her point of view), Ruth's similar neurodegenerative disorder is portrayed from the lens of her family members, helpless to stop their beloved wife and mother's memories from slipping away. This, in turn, makes the story less hard-hitting and more conventionalbut, fortunately, no less perceptive. The cast is uniformly excellent, led by a note-perfect Hilary Swank (2010's "Conviction
"), as Bridget, in her first major film role in three years. Michael Shannon (2016's "Nocturnal Animals
"), as Nick, is rarely given a chance to show this much vulnerability onscreen. Blythe Danner (2012's "Hello I Must Be Going
") is a joyous, bittersweet presence as the memory-afflicted Ruth. Taissa Farmiga (2018's "The Nun
") brings a resounding sense of uncertainty and quiet grief to Emma, on the verge of adulthood and still trying to figure out what she wants from her future. And Robert Forster (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen
") is nothing less than poignant as Bert, facing the tough realization that his wife will soon no longer remember him.
"What They Had" has a way of feeling low-key and explosive all at once. An intimately composed drama, it is prone to streams of heated conversations and arguments, but then pulls back when it starts to feel repetitive. Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko is the ringleader of a precarious balancing act, one she pulls off much more often than not. Hilary Swank is the beating center of the piece, her Bridget a people-pleaser who has fallen into a rut because of her hesitance to stand up for herself. Her journey of self-discovery and ultimate responsibility, coinciding with that of a mother who is about to need her more than ever, resonates with raw honesty. It all culminates on a beautifully moving grace note, one suggesting a cosmic order to the unpredictable and often bitter chaos of life.