Strong performances lift up What They Had as one Chicago family realizes that they must come to a decision on what to do about a loved one’s health.
It’s the blistery cold of December when Ruth (Blythe Danner) has wondered off again. Not knowing where she is, Bert (Robert Forster) calls Nick (Michael Shannon) who in term calls California-based sister Bridget (Hilary Swank). The next thing we know, Bridget and her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), are on a flight to Chicago worried sick about what happened.
Ruth is suffering from Stage 6 dementia but Bert is so stubborn that he won’t allow her to be placed into a “memory care” facility. Even though it is in Ruth’s best interest, Bert isn’t quite ready to say goodbye. After all, Ruth is the love of his life and they’ve been together for so many years. While Bridget may live in California, bar owner Nick is the one faced with the heavy burden in Chicago. He’s the one who is always getting the call. It’s only when Ruth somehow ends up in Aurora in which the two children force their dad to make a decision.
Bridget wants everyone to have the best of both worlds. Her temporary solution only leads to a bigger hassle and more fighting. While the film is very much about a family deciding what to do, one can also look at it as Bridget coming of age later in life as an adult. She was married when she was 20! In her own admission, she was married way too young.
Ruth’s memory is in pretty bad shape this late in the game. She is a core of the person she once was. Blythe Danner plays it in such a way to where she is able to humanize the character while capturing the sad reality. You can’t help but ache for this family who is seeing their matriarch continue to get worse.
Michael Shannon’s work continues to show why he’s one of the best in the game. This film also allowed the actor to work in a city where he has roots in the theater scene. The script gives Shannon the chance to show off the comical side of his abilities. More often than not, we see what he can do with the dark and sinister side. What we see from him in What They Had is a son that just wants to do the right thing.
While highly personal for first-time director Elizabeth Chomko, What They Had is a universal story of love and loss. It’s one that many families can relate to–my own family included with having watched my grandmother’s memory worsen over numerous years.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Elizabeth Chomko
CAST: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, and Josh Lucas