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What They Had

A family united by the past. Divided by the present.

Actor-playwright Elizabeth Chomko’s satisfying drama What They Had brings considerable humour to the grim subject of dementia, but without ever trivializing it.

Poster for the grown-up family drama What They HadGetting up in the middle of the night, Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes for a walk – which might not be significant if she didn’t venture out into a Chicago winter wearing little more than a nightgown. By the time hubby Burt (Robert Forster) notices her absence, she’s nowhere to be found. Although she’s eventually located, unharmed, the crisis causes daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) to fly in from California, summoned by brother Nicky (Michael Shannon).

Nicky views this incident as final proof that mom must be put in a care facility. He’s already scouted a local ‘memory center’ designed to serve people with her needs, and there’s assisted-living housing that would enable Burt to remain just a stone’s throw away. But Burt, neck-deep in denial, refuses to even entertain the idea, choosing to ignore or downplay all the increasingly blunt signs of Ruth’s deterioration – even the fact that she sometimes no longer recognizes him.

Nick and his father lock horns over everything, so Nick hopes his sister will back him up in his plans for their mom’s long-term care. But Bridget has always been the passive sibling, caving in to daddy’s well-meaning but unbending will.

Taking place over a few days at Christmas time, What They Had nicely weaves in an assortment of domestic conflicts around its central issue. Parent-child dynamics, sibling relations and fear of commitment (Nick has strung his girlfriend along for decades) are deftly considered alongside the primary question of what to do with mom.

Danner is very good as the subject of all this fuss, with moments of clarity surfacing like oases in a mind now mostly locked in the distant past. But hers is a figure more discussed than seen. The film really belongs to those around her:  Swank, sympathetically nuanced in one of her best recent roles; a delightfully brusque, caustic, playful Shannon; and Forster, who’s played many irascible types but here makes the most of a fully rounded character.

– Dennis Harvey, Variety

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