What They Had: Which We Are About to Receive, by David Bax
Elizabeth Chomko’s stunning directorial debut sets itself apart and eases its way into the depths of your heart not by focusing on the broad, universal strokes in its story but on the smaller, specific ones. We’ve seen movies about a family dealing with an ailing parent before but Chomko gives us one that’s nearly as much about Chicago at Christmastime or about workaday Midwestern Catholicism—the way the family solemnly but perfunctorily plows through grace before a meal made me guffaw in recognition. Most viewers probably won’t have the same reference points but What They Had succeeds largely because it understands that every family has things about it that are specific. They may be different than your family’s but we will recognize ourselves in their uniqueness.
One of the other reasons What They Had succeeds is the world-beater roster that is its cast. Hilary Swank centers the movie as Biddie, the daughter who rushes back home to Chicago, with her own daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), in tow, when her dementia-addled mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), wanders out of the house in the middle of a snowstorm. By the time they arrive and are picked up by Biddie’s brother, Nick (Michael Shannon), their father, Burt (Robert Forster), has already located Ruth. Disaster momentarily averted, the family now has to decide what next steps, if any, need to be taken to help and protect their matriarch.
When we’re young, it’s impossible for us to see our parents as they really are. Arguably, in fact, you’re not supposed to do so at that age; the dynamic of raising and being raised depends on it. One of Chomko’s most fleshed out insights—and the source of much of What They Had’s dramatic tension—is her depiction of the way that those of us who left home at the onset of adulthood get the luxury of still seeing our parents as they were. Nick can be brusque and difficult but he’s earned it as the one who stayed in Chicago and dealt with reality while Biddie got to maintain whatever illusions she had that her parents were just her parents.
With a cast as strong as this one, we’re easily sold on the familial bonds and history. But Chomko’s gorgeously composed screenplay goes even further, detailing intra-family relationships and keying in on the way that any one member becomes a slightly different person depending on which other member or members they happen to be interacting with. The Biddie who tenderly helps her mother bathe is not the same Biddie who noses in on her own daughter’s life to the extent of picking her college classes for her. Except, of course she is. And we can see that. This attention to the details of familiarity and intimacy is a source of comedy as much as tenderness. When a bickering Biddie and Emma instantly become a united front in the face of Nick’s coldness, the sudden turn is hilarious. What They Had may be a movie about dementia but it’s also one of the most consistently funny movies of the year.
Then again, it’s not truly a movie about dementia. Chomko privileges Ruth’s point of view far less than anyone else’s. What They Had is more specifically a movie about a family dealing with one of its members having dementia. This is not a criticism; the film is self-aware and its approach becomes all the more gutting when, for instance, we notice the characters slipping into referring to the still very much alive Ruth in the past tense.
Most likely, they do so because it’s easier to think about the old Ruth that they know than to wrestle with the realities of the current one. What They Had is, more than anything, about memory, fitting for a story about a woman losing hers. Memories abound in Ruth and Bert’s home; photographs even hang from the Christmas tree. But memories are not facts. They are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the present. What They Had, light as a sunbeam and heavy as snowfall, grips our hand through the transition from memory to reality and lets us know it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be all right.