It’s a story that’s been told before: a disease enters a dysfunctional family. Let’s see how its handled. There’s something different about Elizabeth Chomko’s directing and writing debut. It tells a story about a mother suffering Alzheimer, a father in deep denial of it and two adult children in polar opposite situations. It’s a wonderfully written feature with its comedic timing and the right number of serious scenes.
There are plenty of stories within the story. Like the relationship between Hilary Swank’s character, Bridget Ertz, and her daughter Emma, played by Taissa Farmiga. Nicky, played by the ever-fabulous Michael Shannon, never left Chicago, taking care of his parents while Bridget started a family in California. You feel the tension as Bridget makes her way to Chicago after Nicky calls her to tell her how Ruth, played by Blythe Danner, left the house in the middle of the night again, ending up close to where she grew up as a child. It’s a scary situation for the entire family, and there comes this question of where Ruth should go. Nicky wants her in a memory home.
Robert Forster plays Burt who prides himself as a loving husband. He does deny the seriousness of Ruth’s condition, but he knows how much he loves her and how much he wants to be there for her. Chomko does a tremendous job of demonstrating just how much Ruth means to Burt like how Burt described Ruth as his girl, references to wedding vows and a dramatic scene where Burt vividly describes to his children how he takes care of Ruth during this demanding time. He repeats that love is commitment more than once. It’s such a perfectly acted film that even if the plot has some shortcomings the cast more than makes up for it.
I saw it Friday night at 11 in a literal empty theater. It had been some time since I’ve seen a movie in a completely empty theater, but it presents itself an opportunity to kick up your feet without a care. It’s not a movie that needs to be seen in theaters, that’s for certain. So far, I’ve seen 30 movies in theaters this year. MoviePass allowed for many to happen, but in June I had to cancel the membership amid a barrage of issues. Last month I decided to sign up for Sinemia, which allows me to see three movies a month for only $9. It’s a freaking fantastic deal, and I’m pleased to say it’s actually working so far.
The theater experience cannot be overlooked while watching a film. Some movies, like Get Out, demand a crowded theater. I prefer seeing movies with essential dialogue in less crowded establishments, because people talk way too much during the movies, which is why it was nice to see What They Had in a literal empty theater.
Nicky owns a bar and his relationship with Burt features tense moments. Burt probably feels like Nicky never reached his potential. But while Bridget moved away from Illinois, Nicky stayed put. He takes his parents to church weekly and checks up on them, too. It’s that divide that happens so frequently in families. One sibling stays close by while the other moves far away. The responsibility falls on the shoulder of the one who chose to stay for obvious logistical reasons. The root of the problems between Nicky and Bridget can be attributed to just that.
Meanwhile, Emma is clearly going through something during her first year of college, but Bridget doesn’t know how to connect with her. Oddly enough the same lack of connection can be said for Bridget and her father. The best scene of the movie had to be an argument between the two where Bridget admits how unhappy she has been, even though she has her health and a lengthy marriage.
What They Had isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but its originality stood out. It’s a story that’s been told before, but you wouldn’t even realize it, and that’s a credit to Chomko and the terrific cast.