What They Had
Written and Directed by Elizabeth Chomko
Starring Hillary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Famiga
A funny thing happened to me as I watched Elizabeth Chomko’s debut film, “What They Had” unfold in front of me: I reflected on all the families I’ve seen over the years where children take care of their parents in the most difficult of circumstances.
I asked myself – why do children take care of their parents? Is it out of necessity, or rather tradition, or is it because we’re expected to? I certainly don’t have all of the answers and in fact, I would never presume to take care of my parents out of expectation, but because I would want to.
In Ms. Chomko’s story, a fractured family comes together when the matriarch of the family, Ruth (Blythe Danner) wanders off into a Chicago blizzard unexpectedly. Bridget (Hillary Swank) and daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) come in from California to help.
Throughout this ordeal is husband, Burt (Robert Forster). He insists that he can continue to care for Ruth, in spite of what their son, Nicky (Michael Shannon) wants for them. Nicky needs Bridget to convince their dad that the best thing for Ruth is a home where she can get the care she needs.
The beauty in Ms. Chomko’s script is its characters. This film is very much a slice of life. This family was legally prepared, driving a wedge between children. Complicating the matter is Burt’s own health, something that Nicky is keen to keep in check.
A good portion of the story centers around the concept of “Reminiscence Therapy,” where photos are used to trigger memories. I got the sense that Ms. Chomko’s story was personal yielding such rich characters and their own situations.
The main situation breeds other situations, germane to the individual characters: Bridget is struggling mom trying to understand her daughter, while Emma has pressures of her own. Nicky not only feels the pressure of being the child to take care of their folks full time, but to try to salvage his own life, which is falling apart at the seams.
Ms. Chomko uses Ruth’s dementia to bring them all together, even if the steam coming from the heated debates is enough to melt the late December snowfall. And within that, magnetic performances too.
Ms. Swank is, by nature an introvert, or she chooses to play introverted character; it’s a part of her acting strength to be able to take charge when called for, and to have it deliver an emotional punch. Her character deals with much more than just the care of their parents. Michael Shannon continues to impress with his emotionally-laden performance with a brilliant mixture of quiet frustration and outright hostile, foul-mouthed reactions; he’s the hot-tempered one. And rightfully so.
There’s a beautiful scene between he and Robert Forster’s Burt that is the essence of the film.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Robert Forster more tender in a performance. Here he has double duty to protect Ruth from their children while at the same time defending his actions as a father. In the end, there’s nothing but love between Burt and Ruth.
Ms. Danner had, by far, the most difficult role to play in this film, and I would submit her for a supporting actress nomination if I were Bleecker Street: to be able to fade in and out of dementia, to be lively and comedic in one moment followed by an introspective moment is the hallmark of a brilliant actress. She essentially lived in her own world throughout the film, oblivious to all but Burt’s attempts to bring her back into the present.
Some might see his actions as being selfish, an attempt to relive the past for his own benefit. Its a natural progression for his character, and for hers.
The struggle with all of these fine character moments and the world they inhabit is that it leaves the story feeling flat. Understanding that the story intentionally takes a back seat to the performances shouldn’t be so much of a problem.
It was just difficult to balance the two out.
With that, all I can say is that the magnetic performances won this critic’s heart, even if the story doesn’t fully support said performances.
2.75 out of 4