What They Had stars Hilary Swank as Bitty, a chef living in Los Angeles and disconnected from her family back in Chicago. As the movie begins, Bitty is called by her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) to come home because their mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), has disappeared. Ruth has Alzheimers and her memory is slowly slipping away. In a frightening scene, Ruth leaves home in the middle of the night in her nightgown and a shawl. There is a blizzard coming in and everyone fears the worst.
Later we find out that Ruth had boarded a train that she thought would take her back home to her childhood home in Amboy, Illinois, a train route that no longer exists. Nick has called on Bitty to come home to Chicago because he wants her to help him convince their father, Bert (Robert Forster) to let them send mom to a Memory Care facility, something he is adamantly opposed to. He feels she is better off, memory-wise with the person she has spent the last 50 years with.
Nick is adamant that Ruth needs to go into the facility that he has found that also has an apartment for Bert. Bert however, hates the idea and insists that they are going to move to Florida. Witnessing all of this is Bitty’s daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Emma has traveled with her mom to Chicago after having been kicked out of her dorm room at college. Secretly, she’s planning on dropping out of college but she’s afraid to tell her mom.
What They Had was written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko in her feature film debut and what a debut it is. She certainly didn’t make it easy on herself taking on a very difficult and emotional topic as memory loss and the end of life. It’s a huge topic with pitfalls that even an experience filmmaker might struggle with but Chomko absolutely nails it. A story like the one in What They had requires sensitivity and compassion and Chomko builds that into the movie brilliantly.
The key is the performance of Blythe Danner, a veteran character actress who invests a reality into Ruth that demonstrates that she studied this disease and took care with her details. Danner is remarkable, never failing to invest Ruth with a beautiful humanity. There is a danger that a role such as this could turn into a burlesque of simplistic and childlike tics, but not here. Danner may play Ruth as spacey but you can sense the struggle that anyone who has dealt with memory loss has experienced, that desire to maintain some form of identity.
Robert Forster is heartbreaking in What They Had. Stubborn and bitter with his children, Forster’s Bert could not possibly be more loving to Ruth. At one point in the film we are told the story of what happened when Bert returned from the Korean war. The story contains the details of the kind of love you absolutely believe has lasted 50 years. A monologue Forster delivers midway through the film that ends with him simply stating ‘she’s my girl,’ is making me well up as I type this.
Michael Shannon is the kind of actor we take for granted. Shannon’s performances are so consistently brilliant that you could be forgiven for forgetting how natural and instinctive he is as a performer. Nick has a difficult arc in What They Lost that includes having to play the bad guy who pushes for the memory care facility against his father’s wishes while also dealing with a personal life that has crumbled while he tried to start a business and be there whenever his mother goes missing which is becoming more frighteningly frequent. Shannon balances bitterness and caring in his typically authentic fashion.
Finally, there is Hilary Swank one of our finest actresses. Even though she has won two Academy Awards, Swank is somehow desperately underrated as a leading lady. She doesn’t have Sandy’s box office or Jennifer Lawrence’s youth and thus her marketability isn’t particularly large. Swank however, succeeds where it matter: in her characters. Swank is a brilliant actress, and in What They Had she reaffirms her brilliance with a performance that has layers and layers that get peeled away throughout.
Swank is two for two in brilliant and little seen dramas released to theaters in 2018. In September she starred in the unfortunately overlooked, based on a true story gem, 55 Steps opposite Helena Bonham Carter. She’s even better here playing a complex, prickly and awkward character caught right in the middle of the drama playing out among her family. Then there are her daughter and husband and that’s a whole other can of worms she’s trying to contain.
I adored What They Had but be aware, the film is incredibly sad. If you aren’t prepared for a good cry, this movie is not for you. It’s an exceptionally moving story that earns your emotional involvement and never panders to get your tears. My tears were complete genuine and induced by deep empathy for these characters and for the lovely and caring way the director told their story. I highly recommend you see What They Had for yourself.