Memory loss has been fodder for quite a few movies in the past decade, from romantic weepies to dramatic depictions of Alzheimer’s disease in Oscar favorites such as Still Alice and Away From Her. Now it’s once again the focal point in writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s family drama, What They Had. But Chomko’s debut doesn’t fall into either of the aforementioned categories. Instead, What They Had can only be described as a more intimate affair, an authentic picture of family allegiances and resentments, and the decisions that determine our future.
Featuring a star-studded cast made up of Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner, What They Had follows a family trying to cope with their matriarch’s worsening dementia. When Ruth (Danner) wanders off in the middle of a snowy Chicago night with nothing but a nightgown on, her daughter Bridget (Swank) flies home from California at the request of her brother Nicky (Shannon), who’s finding the increasingly concerning situation almost too much to bear. He wants Bridget to help convince their father Burt (Forster) to put Ruth in a care home. In denial and as smitten with his wife as he was the day he met her, Burt refuses – and a fractured family is left to come together and heal old wounds.
What They Had is about more than just the heartbreaking side effects of Alzheimer’s. Here, the disease is used as a catalyst to explore the many facets of a family in crisis: Bridget is hugely dissatisfied with her marriage, a union she accepted more to please her father than because she was truly in love; Nicky is constantly butting heads with his hypercritical father; and Bridget’s daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) was kicked out of her college dorm and harbors no academic ambition, a fact she’s been hiding from her sidetracked family. All of these individual dilemmas fuse together via outstanding performances from the entire cast, specifically Shannon, whose innate intensity is put to perfect use as a no-nonsense type who views himself as the only pragmatic person in his dysfunctional family.
But as somber as this whole set up may seem, Chomko is skillfully able to weave in real moments of levity and humor, like when Nicky tells his sister that their mom hit on him during a particularly bad moment of memory loss, or when Ruth picks up a stapler to make a phone call. Those moments feel so real because that old adage really is true: Sometimes, you have to laugh so you don’t cry.
What They Had is playing at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami starting this Friday. For showtimes, click here.