What They Had

 

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Blythe Danner plays a former carer with Alzheimer's in a heartfelt family drama with a potent sting of truth.

 

What They Had

Failing memories: Blythe Danner and Robert Forster

  

What they had was a long, rock-solid marriage that produced two fiercely independent-minded children, along with years of valuable memories. But now that Norbert and Ruth Everhardt (Robert Forster and Blythe Danner) are in their autumnal years, Ruth’s Alzheimer's comes to a head during one particularly harsh Chicago winter. When she heads off in a snowstorm wearing nothing but a nightie, Norbert telephones his son Nick (Michael Shannon) for help. He, in turn, summons his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) all the way from California…

 

Anybody who has had a family will have cause to flinch – or sob – during Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut. Here, not only does the dialogue really ring true – the characteristic clichés, repetitions and familial shorthand – but the performances are terrific. We just don’t see enough of Hilary Swank and as the grown-up daughter faced with her mother’s mental deterioration, the actress brings conviction, vulnerability, compassion and a sharp intelligence to her role as long-distance carer. Not that everybody is not on superlative form, although as Norbert, Ruth’s angry, defensive husband, Robert Forster is also hugely effective, like a cornered, wounded bear protecting his patch.

 

Every character drawn into the maelstrom of Ruth’s advancing dementia has his or her own backstory, adding flesh to the bones of the central impasse. There’s Bridget’s own stagnating marriage (to Eddie, played by Josh Lucas), and her prickly relationship with her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who is fighting her own demons at college.

 

Yet amongst all the dramatic showdowns, Chomko allows scenes of real tenderness to make their mark, for example when Bridget gives her mother a shower. And there’s room for humour, too, such as when Ruth scolds her husband for not fixing the phone, while holding a stapler up to her ear. Even so, Chomko – an actress in her former life – never labours any point, giving her drama an economic edge, strengthening both its honesty and emotional impact.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Sarah Sutherland, Aimee Garcia, Jay Montepare, Jennifer Robideau.

 

Dir Elizabeth Chomko, Pro Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Andrew Duncan, Tyler Jackson, Bill Holderman, Keith Kjarval and Alex Saks, Ex Pro Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon, Screenplay Elizabeth Chomko, Ph Roberto Schaefer, Pro Des Christopher Stull, Ed Tom McArdle, Music Danny Mulhern, Costumes Anne Dawson.

 

Unified Pictures/Bona Fide Productions/Look to the Sky Films/June Pictures-Universal Pictures.

101 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 1 March 2019. Cert. 15.