What They Had (2018)

3.5 of 5 from 50 ratings
1h 41min
Not released
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From first-time writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, 'What They Had' centers on a family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to Chicago at her brother’s (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother (Blythe Danner) and her father’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together.
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Release Date:
Not released
Run Time:
101 minutes

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What They Had review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso

There’s a moment of dread that lingers in the minds of those who parents are getting on in years and we all know it. It’s the day when we finally have to realize that our older parents can’t be on their own anymore. They need extra care that we simply can’t give them as the road gets rockier with the deteriorating body and mind. We don’t want to admit it. Heck, our parents don’t want to admit it either. And the family of What They Had fight this battle of death and assisted living right up to the bitter end, tears and all.

Robert Forster plays Nortbert, an older man committed to looking after his wife Ruth (Blythe Danner) who currently has Alzheimer's. He believes he can still keep a close eye on him but the truth is he can’t. He awakes to find her missing, having ventured out into the cold snow of Christmas Eve and turning up at the hospital. His kids are frustrated as well. While Bridget (Hilary Swank) tries to handle the matter delicately being a mother herself, the bar owner Nick (Michael Shannon) isn’t as keen to entertain the idea that Ruth is just fine. Bridget isn’t ready to let go, choosing to spend more time with mom and embrace her better qualities before her memory dives deeper. Nick knows this won’t last and wants to pull the band-aid off quickly for placing Ruth and Robert in a home where they can be together and cared for. Of course, he’s not ready for it either, no matter how hardened he seems to be about this next step.

A film of this nature could be walking a tough tightrope act of drama and comedy. Go too tender and you risk melodrama. Go too comical and you risk being baffling. Thankfully, What They Walk goes tender and true, never shying away from the darkness yet taking its time to appreciate the specs of splendor the become fleeting. Clips of old home movies are perfectly placed as flashes of the past, the way kids always want to remember their parents best. Bridget gets her moment to connect with mom amid her hair dying and showers, trying to keep mom at her best, shooting down lingering doubts about being a bad mom.

Meanwhile, Nick and Robert battle out their differences as they’re both deeply frustrated. Nick can’t stand that he has spent so much of his time trying to care for his parents he feels are too stubborn to know when the end is near. Robert is disgusted by how his offspring has rejected the Catholic religion that has led to the more chaotic lives of their kids. The two will eventually connect in a rather brilliant scene of Nick impressing with his talent to make a fine drink. A subtle and silently sweet scene of two connecting and seeing each other in the same light.

Having a fantastic cast certainly helps the film but what makes it shine just as well is the perfectly balanced direction by Elizabeth Chomko, making her film relatable, human, and somber. The format of the feuding family, many times centered around elderly ailments and inevitable demise, is nothing new and can often become so soft and mushy or grossly glum. What They Had doesn’t aim to be a tearjerker in this regard, at least not the easy tears, but still does an ample job presenting a story about a family that comes together with warmth heavier on waves that feel more real than artificial.

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