Review: What They Had is a sensitive treatment of an important issue

Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut about a family dealing with dementia is beautifully acted but unremarkable

WHAT THEY HAD (Elizabeth Chomko). 101 minutes. Opens Friday (October 26). See listing. Rating: NNN

What They Had is a well-made movie with a cast of fine actors giving strong performances. It’s a sensitive treatment of an important issue. And yet, in the end, it just sort of sits there, unable to distinguish itself among all the other projects about a family dealing with dementia. 

Hilary Swank is Bridget, a California chef who comes home to Chicago with her college-age daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) when her ailing mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), goes missing. Ruth turns up safe and sound, but it’s clear that Bridget’s father, Burt (Robert Forster), and brother Nick (Michael Shannon) are at loggerheads over how to care for her. 

Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko – an actor and playwright making her first feature debut – assembles her characters, establishes the premise, shows us what’s going to happen and sets about ticking off narrative boxes, one by one.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t any surprises – plenty of movies lack them – but that there’s never any question as to how things will play out once the stakes are presented to us. Most of the action is confined to Burt and Ruth’s condo, which also serves to underline how the story keeps circling itself, the family having the same arguments over and over again until tragedy forces them to act. 

Chomko gets terrific work from the cast: Swank and Shannon are totally convincing as brother and sister, with similar rhythms of speaking and moving and a hair-trigger sensitivity to each other’s presence. Forster, given his best role since Jackie Brown, rises to the challenge of playing a devoted husband whose denial about his wife’s deterioration has created even greater obstacles to her care.

But there’s nowhere for the story to go, and attempts to complicate things further with subplots about Bridget and Nick’s relationship status just feel like attempts at distraction. Maybe it’s because the Ruth situation is too much of an investment maybe it’s just that we never get to see how these people are when they’re not in crisis mode.

I found myself wondering whether this project, which was inspired by the lives of Chomko’s grandparents, might have worked better on stage. The subtler emotional negotiations could certainly benefit from the immediacy of live performance. And I’d love to see Swank and Shannon play these roles in the flesh. | @normwilner

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