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“What They Had” finds welcome humor in a tragic setting

The more tragic yet intimate a story, the more you, as an audience member, hope for a personal touch in order to ground things in a relatable way. It just feels right to have that, as opposed to something fantastical and out there. There’s a personal touch that’s found all throughout What They Had. While you may leave the film raving about Robert Forster’s performance, what also stays with you is the deft touch that writer/director Elizabeth Chomko has. Films about Alzheimer’s and the deterioration of a parent are often just tearjerkers. Chomko refutes that notion, instead creating something deeply lived in and real. The laughter, the tears, the emotion, it’s all earned. Opening today, it’s an independent picture with a lot to offer.

The movie is a drama, though one tinged with the sort of laughs that only happen when a family is going through something as tough as this. When Ruth (Blythe Danner) wanders off one night, it’s the final sign that her family needs to begin finally discussing what to do with her. Ruth has been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s/dementia, but until now husband Burt (Forster) has been caring for her, ignoring his son Nick (Michael Shannon), who is sure she needs to be in a care center. So, to arbitrate, daughter/sister Bridget (Hillary Swank) is called in. Along with her teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), she enters the fray and sees how bad her mom is, but also how complicated her father is. Family drama ensues. Chomko writes and directs, while the rest of the cast includes Josh Lucas, William Smillie, and more. Danny Mulhern composed the score, while Roberto Schaefer handled the cinematography.

Chomko deftly finds realistic humor in what is undeniably a tragic situation. She also perfectly casts the film, especially when it comes to Forster, who is outstanding. He gets to play gruff and tender in equal measure, bristling against Shannon and Swank, the children he feels aren’t following his lifelong guidance, while showing his loving side to Danner, his failing wife who he still refers to as “my girl.” The ensemble cast, Chomko’s feel for the material, and the earned emotions are all easy to praise. There’s a moment near the end that is an absolute heart melter. On the flip side, one of the final moments may make you roll your eyes, but that’s a small quibble.

What They Had wasn’t made solely to win awards, but it’s the type of movie that could catch the attention of the Academy. Oscar voters will probably only look to Best Supporting Actor and Robert Forster, which is a shame considering Chomko’s work, but Forster is certainly worthy. In fact, one could even argue that if he gets an Academy Award nomination, with this Supporting Actor field, there’s a chance that he’d be a dark horse to win it all. He’ll need some real big precursor attention, but it could happen, at least in terms of a nod. Then, if that nom happens…watch out.

For those of you who have had a family member deal with this illness, What They Had could be a tough watch. The film may well get you right in the heart. Still, it’s a journey well worth taking. What Chomko depicts is powerful, but never without a real feel for the ups and downs. This isn’t tragedy porn, or anything of the sort. Forster alone would make this a must see, though when you factor in other cast members, this is a real acting showcase. The combined efforts of everyone involved make this a flick you won’t easily forget. The movie will stay with you, mark my words…

Be sure to check out What They Had, starting its run in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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