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Review: What They Had

October 26, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The tumultuous experience of trying to find help for a loved one with dementia, and the effects that it has on the rest of the family, is explored in What They Had, a believable character-driven film that uses gentle humour and genuine emotion to explore a sensitive topic.

The film follows Bridget (Hilary Swank), herself the mother to a sullen teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga), who returns home to Chicago to help deal with her mother Ruth (Blythe Danner), who is rapidly progressing into Alzheimer’s.

At the start of the film, Ruth wanders away during the night in the middle of a snowstorm. She is found safely a little while later, but the incident serves as a wakeup call for the family, forcing them to realize the severity of the situation. Ruth has reached the point where she is no longer able to stay at home, with her longtime husband Burt (Robert Forster) struggling to provide the help and constant supervision that she needs, but the question of where she should go becomes quite divisive for the family.

While also sorting out the various problems in her own life, Bridget finds herself having to deal with the drama of her father not being ready to have his high school sweetheart move out of the apartment that they have shared for years, as well as increasing pressure from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon), a local bar owner who is insistent that it’s time to put their mother in a retirement village. The situation is complicated by the fact that Bridget has power of attorney, and Nick wants her to use it to force the move whether their parents like it or not, but she isn’t really comfortable or willing to do so.

A big part of why this films works so well is due to the impeccable ensemble cast, with the actors all bringing nuance and different shades to their own individual roles, while also really nailing the family dynamic in their scenes together. Swank and Shannon believably portray siblings, engaging in arguments and mostly goodnatured name calling in a way that rings true to the real life interactions between brother and sister. Forster does moving work as a man not ready to say goodbye to his wife, and Danner delivers an accurate portrayal of someone slipping into dementia, with a moment of clarity that she has near the end providing one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.

Written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko, who brings a good deal of warmth and sensitivity to the material, having based the story on her own grandparents to whom the film is dedicated, What They Had is a tender and superbly acted dramedy that rings true to the experience of trying to find the best course of action for an aging loved one with dementia. It’s a touching film that will be especially resonant for anyone going through something similar in their own lives.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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