Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had understands how shared family history colors interpersonal relationships, and it’s judiciously fixated on how the ties that bind one family loosen when its matriarch, Ruth (Blythe Danner), slowly loses herself to Alzheimer’s. At its best, the film crackles with character interplay, delighting in simply observing how one person’s words, gestures, and expressions can have cascading effects.
In the wake of a late-night journey that the pajama-clad Ruth takes through a snowy Chicago neighborhood, her family converges at her home to discuss her future. Early on, Chomko elegantly delineates each personality type and how its countered by its opposite. The film is about recognizing how a family is a whole built from its different parts, though one may wish that as the storyline pushes forward that it succumbed less to portentous melodrama.
The scenes between Bridget (Hilary Swank) and her prickly brother, Nick (Michael Shannon), best epitomize What They Had‘s lived-in quality. After Nick picks up Bridget and her daughter (Taissa Farmiga) at the airport, it’s as if the siblings pick up a conversation that was cut off long ago. Chomko makes little room here for those moments of catch-up that seem to exist as delivery machines for expository background information. Chomko grounds Bridget and Nick’s interplay in the sort of shorthand that only develops after having known someone for many years; it’s almost as if the brother and sisters are conversing telepathically as much as they are verbally and physically.
Chomko also deals honestly with how families must navigate a complex suite of emotions when one of their own succumbs to dementia. In the film’s finest scene, Ruth and her husband, Burt (Robert Forster), and their family discuss children around the dinner table, leading to Ruth blurting out that she’s pregnant. Some members of the family politely shake off the comment, but Bridget and Nick can’t stop themselves from laughing. It’s a moment that bravely acknowledges that humor is very much a defense against Alzheimer’s.
What They Had gracefully coasts on its patient observations of one family’s dynamics, but once the third act hits, Chomko goes about neatly tidying up seemingly every loose end. Rather than continue to observe the family work through their differences, which might have further showcased layers of everyone’s individual personalities, Chomko opts to show brief snippets of scenes where a certain resolution has been achieved, and not giving audiences an eyewitness account of the resolution process proves discordant. The film’s final scene, both maudlin and absurd, very neatly encapsulates what What They Had eventually becomes: a treacly drama that sees its players become shadows of their former selves.