Elizabeth Chomko wrote the script for this film in 2014 as part of the Screenwriters Lab at Sundance, and later would win a Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. She directed her script and ended up packing a huge punch with the film.
What They Had is about a family dealing with their mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, and starting to become a lot to handle at an alarming rate. One night, Ruth (Blythe Danner, in her second role of the year involving dementia) walks out of the condo that her and her husband Burt (Robert Forster) own and live in. And while this is almost common at this rate, Nicky (Michael Shannon) realizes this is the last straw and calls up his sister Bridget (Hillary Swank) to finally come and help get her into a home. To benefit everyone.
What follows is a very intimate and personal look at how one family has to deal with a very real and tough disease. And this is where this review needs to get personal. While it has yet to fully happen, it’s clear to everyone in my family that my grandfather (who also is the reason why I’m here both alive in Canada, but also writing about a love for cinema) currently suffers from mild dementia. It’s a stepping stone to alzheimer’s, and we can see the similarities in how he constantly forgets what he’s doing, but thankfully not us, not yet.
Watching this film feels like like a glimpse at my family’s future, down to the way that Swank’s character acts like my mother, being one of five siblings, all boys. She has to deal with some of bigger issues but isn’t that close to her parents – geographically speaking. And Nicky reminds me of one of my uncle’s that sometimes has to deal with a lot of these issues first hand. And while he lives very close by, and even though he’s filled with love, sometimes he gets rightfully frustrated and takes it on people he wishes he didn’t.
A great majority of the film consists of the family missing sight of the bigger picture – Ruth should be placed in residential care for individuals with Alzheimer’s, yet Nicky seems to stand alone in being the only voice of reason-not for selfish reasons, either. Yes, to be constantly on and ready to care for your family members is exhausting, but it is still your family and while it may be frustrating at the time, you do it because it is right to do. She deserves the care and effort that professionals are trained to have for the days that we are unsure of how to continue.
The cast does exemplary work, a family that sticks to each other even if they sometimes feels like they’re at the end of the ropes with one another. It’s a long rope, for sure, but it ends sometimes. Together, these actors – and this family – shows us how to hold onto the rope as long as we can.
What They Had is a beautiful painting of a very real family on a canvas that I feel so at home with, in many ways. It’s a film I want to show my own family, even if I’m sure they’ll end the film crying nearly as much as I have. Without going into details but there were many lines that resonated deeply with me and dug deep and haven’t let go. There’s also a sense of magic in the final moments of the film that wouldn’t have worked in other films, but somehow works expertly here. Bring tissues to this film, and some family to help make it easier.