What They Had is the debut of writer-director Elizabeth Chomko. It is about a woman (Hilary Swank) who returns home at the request of her brother (Michael Shannon) to deal with their ailing mother and their father’s reluctance to let her go.
This film certainly has some important and impactful things to say, but unfortunately, it cannot get past its small-scale character study narrative to express them. Rather than feeling like a broad commentary on Alzheimer’s, it felt like an evaluation of the effects of that disease on these specific characters. Although it still works quite well, it seems that the movie wanted to be something more.
Additionally, there are a few subplots that are never fully developed. These storylines do add a bit to the characterization, but never really impact the main story or its message. The storylines involving the protagonist’s marriage and her brother’s lack thereof come to mind as not entirely necessary.
That being said, the movie is certainly well-written and features characters that are quite compelling. The protagonist, Bridget, is a likable and flawed character that easily gains the sympathy of the audience. Her various relationships — with her daughter, brother, and parents — all go a long way to making her sympathetic.
Her father is also an extremely sympathetic character. He is probably the character with whom most audience members can most easily empathize. Many people have gone through the experience of losing a loved one, not through death, but through a disease that is even worse, causing a person to still be alive, but not themself.
The film is a surprisingly breezy watch given its subject matter. There are definitely some sad moments, and even some that could be considered overly melodramatic and tear-jerking. However, the movie uses the talents of Swank, Shannon, and Forster to infuse some moments that are endearing and funny as well, making it rather enjoyable.
The performances absolutely drive the film. All of the actors capture the nuance of their characters with grace and ease. Swank delivers her best performance in quite a while, nailing the emotional complexity of the character. Michael Shannon is great too, having great chemistry with the other actors and adding a lot to the movie comedically. Perhaps most impressive, though, is Robert Forster. His role easily could have been flat and stolid, but instead, he takes it and makes it much richer and deeper.
Overall, What They Had is compelling, but somewhat quaint. The great performances elevate what may have otherwise been a mostly average film.
What They Had is now playing in select theaters.