Based on writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s observations of her grandparents, What They Had is a poignant study of a fractured family coming to terms with surrendering a loved one to Alzheimer’s.
Her script packs an unexpectedly meaty emotional wallop as characters repeatedly avert their gaze from the painful reality of their situation.
“We all know what’s coming,” warns a straight-talking son to the rest of his clan, whose personal and professional woes provide the film – essentially a five-hander – with sensitively-handled narrative detours.
Chomko shoots predominantly inside a family home where years of resentment and regret have seeped into the walls, and photographs of happier times litter the downstairs rooms.
Inevitable heartache is deftly balanced with humour.
When the youngest member of the family confides to her uncle that she has just witnessed grandma drinking holy water in church, he drolly responds: “At least she’s hydrated.”
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon and Robert Forster elevate familiar and potentially cloying material, capturing the spiky rat-a-tat of dialogue between kin, who know each other too well but turn a blind eye to their own failings.
Bert Keller (Forster) wakes to find the other side of the martial bed empty.
His beloved wife Ruth (Blythe Danner), who has stage six Alzheimer’s, has wandered into a snow storm wearing just a flimsy nightdress and housecoat.
Bert telephones his son Nick (Shannon), who in turn calls his sister Bridget (Swank), and she hurriedly flies into sub-zero Chicago from California with her petulant daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow.
Thankfully, Ruth is unharmed but the unsettling episode is the last straw for Nick, who has secured a place for his mother in a memory care facility called The Reminisce Neighbourhood.
Ex-military man Bert stubbornly refuses to entertain the thought of a nursing home – “She’s my girl. You can’t take my girl away from me!” – and Nick’s frustration boils over when peacemaker Bridget refuses to back him up.
Her determination to please the old man by accepting his judgment – and keep secrets about her unhappiness – stokes resentment between the siblings.
“You can’t even tell him you’re not a Catholic anymore,” snipes Nick. “What’s he gonna do – perform an exorcism?”
As Christmas beckons, members of the Keller clan face tough choices about their (in)ability to nurture themselves as well as the people they love.
What They Had is an assured debut feature from Chomko, who elicits compelling performances from a superb ensemble cast.
The central trio of Swank, Shannon and Forster relish the combative nature of their realistically flawed characters’ scenes, neatly dividing our affection and sympathy as the picture moves towards a surprisingly lightweight conclusion.
By Damon Smith