Elizabeth Chomkos What They Had is an affecting portrait of adult children dealing with their aging parents, one of whom is developing dementia and the other of whom is too willful to recognize the dangers. The story is set in the snow-driven chill of Chicago in winter, and it begins in the middle of the night with an elderly woman named Ruth (Blythe Danner) awakening, putting on her robe and house shoes, and wandering out into the dark, snow-covered street.
This episode is the final straw for Nick (Michael Shannon), their son, who has been trying to convince his father, Burt (Robert Forster), that Ruth needs more care than he can provide. For support, Nick calls in his sister, Biddie (Hilary Swank), who lives in California. Nick and Biddie couldnt be any more differenthe is a gruff, no-nonsense bar owner with commitment issues, while she is an introverted housewife with a stressed relationship with her college-age daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga)and as a result they are often at odds in dealing with their parents. Nick has a difficult time not just laying everything on the line, and he is easily angered when he senses resistance to what he knows is right, while Biddie wants to dance around the issue because she cant bring herself to take sides. Burt is determined that he and Ruth will stay in the apartment theyve lived in for decades, and he refuses to concede that he is no longer equipped to take care of her. The idea of putting her into a home in anathema to his sense of himself, and he justifies his stubbornness with appeals to his own dedication and dismissal of the increasing severity of Ruths dementia. It is, in many ways, an impossible situation, and it scratches at long-standing tensions among both the siblings and their parents.
What They Had benefits primarily from the outstanding performances by its central cast, particularly Michael Shannon. Shannon is often cast as villains and psychos and heavies, but he has proven on numerous occasions, particularly in Jeff Nicholss masterful Take Shelter (2011), that he is often at his best when playing everymen struggling under the weight of responsibility. His Nick is a fascinating contradiction in that he lacks social subtleties and would seem at first blush to be a hardened loner, but is in reality a man of significant depth who is constantly working to protect his parents from themselves and feels isolated and alone in his endeavors. Forster is all bluster and frustration as Burt, a man who knows on some level that his life is unravelling but cant bring himself to truly deal with it. Blythe Danner brings a real sense of poignancy to Ruths dementia, as it often reduces her to an almost childlike confusion that is contrasted with the moments of clarity in which she desperately tries to deflect attention.
And that brings us to Hilary Swank, who gives a strong performance as Biddie, a character who is arguably the weakest link in the story, despite being the ostensible protagonist. Biddie is meant to be a character who struggles to take a stand on anything, which results in her relationships with both her husband (who we never see, but hear on the phone) and Emma being strained. She struggles to assert herself and often stands in the shadow of others, which is why a late plot development that finds her trying to initiate an affair with Eddie (Josh Lucas), a childhood friend, feels so weird and out of place. It, to some extent, makes sense in relation to her character, but it also feels unnecessarily distracting from the more engaging issues involving Nick and their parents.
Like Sarah Polleys Away From Her (2006), Tamara Jenkinss The Savages (2007), and Michael Hanekes Amour (2012), which deal with aging and dementia with poignance, black comedy, and moral complexity, respectively, What They Had, draws its dramatic power from its honest depiction of the bitter realities of aging, which it shades from time to time with bits of dour humor. Chomko, an actress making her directorial debut, doesnt do anything particularly new here, but she clearly understands the conflicting emotions inherent in tense family dynamics, and when she focuses her dramatic attention there, What They Had is compelling and engaging. It is unfortunate, then, that her otherwise absorbing narrative gets distracted from time to time by tangents like Biddies would-be affair, which feel slight by comparison.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Bleeker Street Media
Overall Rating: (3)
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