Old age is out to get all of us eventually, and one hopes our loved ones have the understanding and wit to handle us the way writer-director Elizabeth Chomko does with her debut feature, ‘What They Had.”
Bert (Robert Forster) and Ruth (Blythe Danner) have been married some 60 years, and despite Bert’s protestations that love “isn’t bells and whistles,” their love has been an enduring one. It’s had to endure a lot in the last few years, as Ruth slowly loses her memory and mind to Alzheimer’s. When the movie starts, Ruth wanders out of their Chicago condo in the snow, and it’s only thanks to luck and a kindly train conductor that she didn’t end up freezing to death in a snowbank.
Bert and Ruth’s hotheaded son Nick (Michael Shannon) knows that it’s time for Ruth to be put in a memory-care facility, but Bert refuses to be parted from his wife or to enter an assisted-living apartment to be near her. After this latest wandering, Nick calls in the couple’s older daughter, Bridget (Hilary Swank), from California to convince Dad of what’s best for Mom.
Bridget arrives, with her moody college-student daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), and falls into her familiar role as family peacemaker between Nick and their father. Nick is resentful that the parents gave Bridget power of attorney, suggesting they did so because she would never use it. It’s also revealed that Bridget has her own problems, including worries about Emma’s enthusiasm for college and a slow realization that her marriage to boringly reliable Eddie (Josh Lucas) is crumbling.
Chomko, inspired by her own grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, has written a sharply observed look at the family tensions when adult children come to grip with their parents’ mortality. She also delves into Bert’s judgment of his children’s marital choices — Bridget’s obsession with a seemingly “perfect” marriage, and Nick’s fear of commitment to his longtime girlfriend.
The performances are the key here. Swank and Shannon trade some stinging rebukes as the squabbling siblings, both eager to do what’s right for their parents but disagreeing on what that is. Forster, hot off the “Twin Peaks” revival, is touching and aggravating as the siblings’ crotchety dad, and Danner captures with heartbreaking clarity the slow thievery of the mind that Alzheimer’s does on a once-vibrant mind.
It’s possible, in this case, that I’m swayed by my own circumstances. “What They Had” is the first movie I saw after returning from the funeral of my 86-year-old mother, who died last month after a brief illness. While the details are different, the emotions Chomko explores here are many of the ones I’m only beginning to process, both in grieving for my mom and in grasping the demands her death has placed on me and my siblings.
Even so, I think I can say that the family tension and underlying love on display in “What They Had” are sincere and authentic — no matter what one’s family dynamic is.
‘What They Had’
Opened October 19 in select cities; opens Friday, November 9, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex at The District (South Jordan). Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference. Running time: 101 minutes.