All in the Family
Film review by Jude Joseph Lovell
You may not have heard of the writer and director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut picture What They Had (2018), an intimate story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, in spite of its strong notices. I certainly hadn’t. But this well-written and beautifully acted film, now available for streaming on a variety of platforms, quietly addresses one of the most urgent questions facing our society—how to properly care for our elders when they begin to decline.
That Chomko was able to enlist four highly respected actors—Oscar nominees Michael Shannon and Robert Forster, the Tony and Emmy Award–winning Blythe Danner, and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank—to portray a close-knit family consisting of two parents and their adult children in a low-budget film seems a minor miracle. But their clear belief in the project has resulted in four assured and recognizably human performances.
The film opens with Ruth, a retired caregiver herself, rising in the middle of the night and preparing as if to go to work. She then walks out the door with a coat over a nightgown and slippers, disappearing into a snowy Chicago. The panicked husband (Forster) and his son Nicky (Shannon) set out after her, and Nicky compels his sister Bridget (Swank) to fly in from California.
The subsequent scene in the hospital finds Ruth recovered but disoriented, then subjected to a pelvic exam because, as the doctors explain, older women with memory loss issues who wander out in this manner are often assaulted. This harrowing sequence effectively lays out the stakes for the drama to follow.
The rest of the film shows the dynamics among the four adults, with added layers of marital and parental discord for Bridget, who has brought along her insouciant, young-adult daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga, excellent), ostensibly on Christmas break from college. The elderly parents at the heart of Chomko’s narrative are blessed with a rich if imperfect marriage, marked by a faith-centered fidelity to their commitments and one another.
Danner has the least to do in an arguably under-written role, but her quiet grace and wide eyes while crying out lines like “There’s my baby!” to perfect strangers is heartbreaking, and she shines in one temporarily lucid exchange with Swank late in the film. Forster is outstanding as a husband in deep denial of more things than one, who reacts to a gentle suggestion to put Ruth into a facility by fiercely protesting, “You can’t take my girl from me.”
Meanwhile, the stressed siblings squabble over things like power of attorney and when is the correct time for taking more permanent action. Throughout the film, I was struck by Swank and Shannon’s effortless portrayal of the sibling relationship.
While she is best known for more intense roles, Swank here delivers a performance that highlights her character’s wobbly self-confidence and indecision. And while “intense” may as well be Shannon’s middle name—see last year’s The Shape of Water—he demonstrates both comedic and emotional range here, especially in scenes with his stern father.
Chomko’s script wavers at times. The challenges piled on Bridget lead to perhaps one too many hand-wringing moments even for the gifted Swank. Her character’s own marital troubles are depicted somewhat perfunctorily. And Danner might have been given more of an opportunity to develop a role she tackles bravely.
But the authenticity of Chomko’s writing in general, and her assured direction, outclass these quibbles. Her movie offers a refreshingly respectful portrayal of such real-life matters as marital fidelity over a long period, parent-child relationships, and even religious faith. What They Had’s greatest achievement, though, may be its careful balance of tribulation and humor. In more than one scene a moment that should be shocking leads to awkward but genuine fits of laughter. These were the times where the film felt the most true.
The final scene could be the subject of much debate. It concerns a small coincidence that appears larger in light of the theme of loss. Some may find it too on-the-nose. Yet, similar instances do occur in real life. It is for each viewer to decide.
One final note. In the last few years much attention has been focused on first-time filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre, who have surprised audience and critics alike by delivering highly impressive debut films.
What They Had offers an example of a female director who has achieved something comparable, only in an intimate family drama. Though this film’s impact thus far seems modest, let us hope it opens up many doors for Chomko. She appears to have plenty to say.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.