Assembling a group of talented performers for a family drama centered on the decline in health of one of the parents is a familiar concept. You can say that about any genre, really, but if the stories of super-powered heroes are meant to entertain during the summertime, these family dramas are intended to impress (and create lots of emotion) during the fall. What They Had hits all the areas you’d expect for a film like this, and even when considering writer/director Elizabeth Chomko’s relation to the subject matter, the hope is to appreciate the movie for its strengths. Fortunately, the key advantage of this movie lies in what some of these actors bring to the film.
Blyth Danner stars as Ruth, a mother who has Alzheimer’s. She wanders out into the street on a snowy Chicago night, Christmas Eve, in fact, causing everyone close to her to panic. Ruth’s loving husband, Burt (Robert Forster), is a tough Catholic doing his best to take care of his wife. Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon) is brash, but also concerned, given that he wants to put his mom in a nursing home for her own good, but doesn’t have the grace to talk about such a subject effectively with his father. Nicky’s sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank), lives in California, but quickly comes home, with her college-aged daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), to hopefully help figure things out.
Whether adapted from a stage play or the latest offering of a filmmaker bringing a version of a personal story to life, What They Had has a way of approaching the expectations of an ensemble family drama. What works here is the way we get to learn enough about all of the characters involved. Beyond being well acted (with some definite highlights), I felt comfortable with this family, if that makes sense.
It’s one thing to tell me who each of these people are, and sure, some monologues give you precisely that – family members explaining themselves. However, thanks to a solid amount of chemistry shared between who those involved, and a script that finds the right way to expand upon these people in both dramatic and occasionally humorous ways, What They Had succeeds where it needs to.
Regarding who stands out, Forster shines here. He’s the sort of actor that can convey plenty with a single line or reaction shot, so to have him as the family patriarch, given plenty of chances to look right into the eyes of his children and deliver either a cutting remark or a clever turn of phrase makes for a wonderful performance already. Having to add on the inherent sadness of slowly realizing that the one you love is fading away adds another layer that puts him in top form. With only so many directions to go (giving approval to the children, dealing with a tragedy, etc.), Forster makes the most of it, and the performance sings.
Shannon is also quite strong here. Going from some more villainous turns back to a shabby but caring son is excellent. It’s not unexpected, as Shannon has proven to be quite versatile, but he injects a good amount of character into Nicky’s pragmatic point of view. The guy cares for his family, even if he’s not the most delicate in addressing the crucial things. He’s also dealing with his own issues, which the film does fine in presenting, but not letting those overshadow things.
Danner and Farmiga fair well too, but the film’s other major performance from Swank is, unfortunately, the least effective. It’s not her fault, as the two-time Oscar winner does what she can, but the character is handled in a slapdash manner. We learn enough to know Bridget isn’t happy with her marriage and has unresolved issues with her dad, but the energy that comes from this character never allows for enough spark to make her more than a wet blanket.
Films like these generally have this sort of central character, but Bridget doesn’t exactly have the deadpan charm of characters in other films, nor does she do enough to stand out in the way the rest of her family does with their moments to shine. This only sticks out because of the amount of time we spend with Bridget, despite being held back from clearer details that get to what’s wrong with her life.
With so much character focus, it is nice to note the production choices. Rather than having all of these people reside in some fancy house, it’s a nice change of pace to see Burt and Ruth living in an apartment. Navigating this space helps add to the close-quarters feeling that comes from putting such a cast together. And just enough is done as far as making the weather feel like an important thematic factor to be appreciated.
There’s only so much I can say about the Alzheimer’s element, but the film also doesn’t push too hard to make that tear-inducing aspect stick out in too much of a manipulative way. Sure, What They Had relies on a lot of melodrama to work, but there’s comfort in finding some laughs where you can and getting emotional when it counts. With that, I will say Danner does plenty to keep Ruth seeming like a real person, and not some angelic take on a suffering senior. Given where things go, I can at least take solace it never feeling like I was against any of these people.
What They Had is the sort of family drama you can appreciate for keeping things fairly straightforward. It offers a relatable story that does enough to round out the characters so you can enjoy the time, regardless of the balance between light humor and overwhelming drama. Some standout performances further help the film shine and make this into a decent entry into a familiar genre. If you’re looking for a mature film about this sort of topic, there’s nothing wrong with that.