I’m an especially sensitive person when it comes to family dramas and often times, when one gets the waterworks flowing, I get a little upset – admittedly, sometimes upset at the movie. However, once I’ve had time to dry the tears and pull myself together, it’s time to give credit where credit is due and, while formulaic, that wound up being the case with Elizabeth Chomko’s feature directorial debut, What They Had, a movie that wound up earning most of the tears I shed.
The movie stars Hilary Swank as Bridget. She’s stuck in an unhappy marriage, her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) refuses to give her the time of day and, making matters worse, she suddenly gets a call from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) in Chicago – their mother (Blythe Danner), who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is missing. And those are only a few of the challenges this family faces. Burt (Robert Forster) refuses to put his wife in a facility, he recently suffered a heart attack, Nick is living in the bar he owns – the list goes on and on.
It’s your quintessential big screen dysfunctional family that teeters on cliche every now and then, but with an ensemble this strong, it’s too easy to fall into step with them and, despite the constant bickering, actually enjoy spending the time with them. Nick is the ultimate wise guy, a role that suits Shannon quite well. He effortlessly jumps from playful jabs at his sister to extreme passion and frustration when she takes way too long to catch up to the conclusion he made long ago; their parents need extra care at a facility.
And he clearly gets his temper and sass from dear old dad because Forster is a major scene-stealer as Burt. The conversation regarding the choice to move them into a home does get repetitive, but the cycle feels very familiar and real. I’ve certainly experienced it before; there’s an elephant in the room that someone is bound to bring up at every family get-together. You’re stubborn and vow to bang the drum for your side until the day you die but then something happens, and it sparks change and in the case of What They Had, that rehashing of a very serious family problem is done with such heart and authenticity, that the final decision gains more and more weight and meaning each go-around.
And Forster is a true bulldozer in every seen he’s in, a quality that well suits the character he’s playing. He’s a loving but very stubborn guy, and the thing he’s most stubborn about is not being separated from his wife. While those arguments could have easily grown tiresome, the intensity of Forster’s performance gets you each and every time, and the same is true of the discussions between Nick and Bridget on the issue. He’s very insistent and convincing while Bridget is also very malleable, a quality that proves to be an issue with this specific topic and in other areas of her life, too. She’s got her own needs and opinions, but they rarely take priority, and you can see how that’s affected her daughter as well. Bridget can’t discipline Emma and it’s easy to connect the dots between Emma’s rebellious behavior, a mistake Biddy is making, and one that her own parents once made with her. You’ve got three generations here with their past, present and futures on display. Everyone’s struggling with something, but it’s all connected, whether it stems from past problems, has something to do with future concerns, or is just a matter of living in the here and now with a loving family that’s there to help you.
Chomko really gets there with her cast, building an ensemble that feels like a true family with a significant amount of history, but some story threads are wrapped up too quickly, and there’s one in particular that’s resolved off camera which is pretty disappointing and doesn’t pack the punch it deserves. There are also some issues with the technical elements. There are a number of visual choices that just plain old don’t work, others that feel stale and don’t enhance the moment they capture, and there are some noticeable issues with the sound mix as well. But, despite it all, What They Had really digs in deep and makes a big impression.
It sparks a winning connection to the characters, makes you feel part of the family and deeply invested in seeing this situation resolved in the best way possible. It’s also a movie that places great value in the importance of lessons learned and using them to be a better, happier person in the present, and that’s not a bad thought to take home with you.
What They Had opens in theaters on October 19th.