The debut film of writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, partly based on her own experiences with her grandmother, What They Had depicts a family trying to deal with the horrors of Alzheimer's. Very much in the tradition of films such as Iris (2001), Away from Her (2006), and Still Alice (2014), What They Had attempts to avoid becoming too lachrymose by finding humour in the condition and focusing on how the family are ultimately brought together rather than torn apart. It's not perfect, of course, running a good ten minutes too long and straying into melodrama more than once, but for all that, it's still a fine film, with some fantastic writing, and a superb cast doing exceptionally truthful work.
Set in Chicago, the film begins with Ruth (Blythe Danner) waking up in the middle of the night, putting on her shoes, and walking out into a blizzard. When her husband, Burt (a career-best performance from Robert Forster), awakens to find her gone, he calls their son, Nick (Michael Shannon), who in turns calls his sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank). Living in California, Bridget is in a loveless marriage to the nice but dull Eddie (Josh Lucas) and seems to be perpetually sparring with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who may or may not have dropped out of college. With Emma in tow, Bridget flies to Chicago just in time to hear that Ruth has been found - riding the train to her childhood home, worried that her parents will be concerned as to why she is out so late. As the family take Ruth home, the film's central conflict becomes apparent; Nick wants to put her in a "memory centre", but Burt won't hear of it, insisting that no one could look after her as well as him. Nick called Bridget hoping she would back him up, as she has power of attorney. But, although she does agree with Nick that Ruth needs to be in a home, she is reluctant to go against Burt's wishes.
Chomko uses Ruth's illness as a prism through which to examine a number of peripheral themes, not the least of which is how her condition opens up long-gestating fault lines between the various family members. Ruth isn't the central character, and her disease is not the focal point; this is a film about a family in crisis, a crisis precipitated by Ruth's illness, but fuelled by their own personal problems. Nick has sunk every penny he owns into a bar that isn't doing too well, and which Burt has never bothered to visit, whilst his long-time girlfriend has left him, fed up waiting for him to propose; Bridget finds herself increasingly dissatisfied with her career as a chef and her marriage to a man who was essentially chosen for her by Burt; Emma has been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking, and seems to have little to no interest in remaining in college; Burt disapproves of Nick's unmarried status, and belittles his son by referring to him as a bartender rather than a bar owner, whilst he believes Bridget's unhappiness stems from her lapsed Catholicism and the influences of the California environment. One of the strengths of Chomko's script is how she deals with the manifestation of these various problems, deftly handling the presentation of emotions, with the audience empathising first with one character and then another, with no one depicted as completely right or completely wrong.
Another strong aspect of Chomko's script is how she is able to generate laughs from Ruth's condition. At one point, Ruth announces she's pregnant, and Burt tells Nick that in anticipation of the arrival, they've got out all his old baby things. In another scene, a solemn Nick tells Bridget that Ruth hit on him, but Bridget is unable to keep a straight face, and the two end up laughing hysterically. At church, when Emma informs Nick that Ruth has just drunk the holy water, he quips, "at least she's hydrated." When a telephone rings in the apartment, Ruth enters the room holding a stapler to her ear, complaining that she can't hear anything. None of these scenes feel disrespectful or exploitative, and in the case of Ruth hitting on Nick, Chomko actually returns to it later in the film in a key scene when Nick tells Burt about it, and for the first time, we see a chink in Burt's armour - for the first time he doesn't have an instant response, with Foster brilliantly portraying just how difficult Burt is finding it to process what he has just heard.
Aesthetically, a great deal of the film takes place in Burt and Ruth's apartment, perhaps a by-product of Chomko's theatrical background. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer shoots the interiors with a very warm colour palette that cools down considerably whenever the film moves to another location, setting up the apartment as the emotional heart of the story. There are also a couple of visual flourishes here and there. A really beautiful shot occurs right at the start; as Ruth walks away from the apartment into the snow, she slowly fades out, literally disappearing into the night. An especially noticeable visual motif is the use of photographs and old home movie footage, both of which feature predominantly throughout the film. Initially, I thought this was a fairly clichéd technique (how many heartfelt family dramas feature an opening with home movie footage depicting a happier time), but in the case of What They Had, it actually pays off beautifully in the final sequence. Chomko also features a number of scenes in which characters get bad news whilst in bed - subverting the notion of one's bed being a place of rest and security.
In terms of the acting, given the cast, it should come as no surprise how universally impressive it is. As Ruth, Blythe Danner gives a pathos-rich lyrical performance in which she must react to everything without registering anything. The film's depiction of Ruth may be romanticised, but as a performance, Danner's work is flawless, as she switches from knowing she's a grown woman with grandchildren to believing she is a young girl still living with her parents. Foster plays Burt as a bully, albeit not a self-aware one; he has no idea how much ideological authority he wields over his children, or how afraid of him they are, or that Bridget feels he pushed her into a marriage she didn't want. One of the subtexts of the film is the long-term impact that having such an overbearing parent can have on a child, but the strength of the performance is that Burt is not a wantonly bad man; he thinks he has done right by his children, and he remains always charming. Despite his bravado and machoism, however, his most salient characteristic is his unwavering love for Ruth, who he still refers to as "my girl". A scene of them exchanging Christmas presents is as poignant a scene as you're likely to see all year, with his love and her quiet dignity intertwining to create probably the best scene in the film. Bridget is, by definition, a passive character for most of the film, but Swank gets a lot of mileage out of playing her inner struggles; she very much wants to assert herself, whether it be in her dealings with Nick, Burt, Emma, or Eddie, but something constantly holds her back. Shannon, whom we're used to seeing as a snarling monster, reminds us here of why he is considered such an acting powerhouse and how impressive he can be playing a more 'normal' character. Doing arguably his best work since Revolutionary Road (2008), he plays Nick as utterly exhausted with the burden of helping to look after Ruth without so much as a thank you from Burt. However, the irony at the heart of the performance is that Nick is turning into exactly the same kind of bully as Burt, something he doesn't seem to realise. And whilst Burt's soft centre is apparent in how he relates to Ruth, Nick's becomes clear insofar as what he wants more than anything is his father's approval.
However, a number of factors hold the film back. Firstly, like most films about Alzheimer's, it depicts the condition as not quite as bad as it really is (Ruth never becomes violent, for example, as so many sufferers do), with the choices faced by the family far more binary and clear-cut than is so often the case. Chomko also makes a few directorial misjudgements. For example, the final scene features a truly bizarre bit of on-the-nose symbolism that at the screening I attended elicited laughter in what should have been the emotional apex of the story. Speaking of the end, there are about five scenes which could legitimately have served as the dénouement (all of which seemed to be wrapping things up), with the film running a good ten minutes too long, and missing a chance for a really powerful final impression, ending on a beautifully poignant comment by Ruth. Another problem is the subplot involving Emma's attitude towards college, which Chomko never manages to make feel like anything other than an insubstantial and unimportant tangent. There's also something of a discrepancy in the film's presentation of the family as emotionally repressed old-school Catholics, and the fact that they literally spend the entire film talking to each other about their feelings.
These few issues aside though, this is an impressive debut. It's not the best Alzheimer's movie ever made (thus far, that is Away From Her), but it's a fine addition to the subgenre. Chomko elicits excellent performances from the central quartet and displays some nice visual touches as director. I didn't find it as emotional as I expected (or as emotional as it seems to think it is), but it's definitely a heartfelt film, and you could do much worse than to seek it out.
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