In What They Had, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko drew on her own experience with her beloved grandmother’s Alzheimer’s to bring to the screen a heart-tugging drama about the disease and its acute impact on a family.
When Ruth wanders from her Chicago home in a blizzard, it becomes apparent that her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease is reaching a crisis point. Her husband Burt and her son Nick disagree about what form her caregiving should take. Burt is adamant he can care for Ruth at home, desperate to keep their life together as long as possible, even as her memory of that life together slips away. Nick has arranged for her to go to a memory care facility and asks his sister Bridget, who has been largely absent from the family, to come home and help convince their stubborn father that this is the best course of action. Bridget arrives from California, with her rebellious daughter in tow, and old family dynamics immediately resume. They are a real, messy, but loving family who, over the course of a few days at Christmastime, come together to try to find the best solution for their mother.
In this touching portrait of a family in crisis, Chomko focuses more on the pain their mother’s disease inflicts on family members, and how it makes them re-assess their own lives, priorities and relationships. Both Nick and Bridget struggle with connection and happiness in various ways. Bridget seems to have it all but, as she watches her father tenderly care for her mother, realizes her own marriage is crumbling. Nick has just been dumped by his girlfriend tired of waiting for a commitment. Tension and pent-up drama pour out just as it’s becoming painfully obvious that Ruth needs help that Burt can’t provide.
Chomko has written a script so good, it’s understandable why world-class talent was drawn to it. Hilary Swank’s role as Bridget has been called one of her best (and she’s had some good ones). Robert Forster has a career-best performance as Burt, and Michael Shannon as Nick is superb. Most notable is Blythe Danner’s nuanced and authentic performance as she conveys Ruth’s irreversible path into total memory loss.
There are so many feelings wrapped up in a story like What They Had. There’s an unmistakable amount of sadness about the ordeal, a sense of helplessness you’re powerless to stop, and yet the movie finds ways to inject humour and to celebrate love.
Chomko chooses to focus on the light in moments of darkness and the movie ends on a bittersweet, comforting note. Johanna Schneller of the Globe and Mail called it “a near-perfect drama.”
What They Had shows at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Salmar Classic. Bring Kleenex.