Watching “What They Had,” I can imagine how difficult it is dealing with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s. I had an aunt who had the disease, and as a little kid, I wasn’t aware of its complications. But did I know? I was just a kid. Now I’m an adult, and I worry I may get the disease. For now, “What They Had” is what we need in these times.
In her writing/directing debut Elizabeth Chomko introduces us to a Chicago family with one member suffering from Alzheimer’s. It would happen to be the mother Ruth (Blythe Danner), who wanders off during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. Her solider husband Burt (Robert Forester) calls their son Nick (Michael Shannon) for help, and he then calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) from California. She flies over with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), and Ruth is okay. At least that’s what Burt thinks. He refuses to put her in a nursing home, but Nick argues with him, saying she’s gotten worse.
Nick asks Ruth if she knows who Burt is, she says: “He’s my boyfriend.” At times, she still thinks she’s a teenage girl, who is having a baby.
Speaking of which:
Whenever she sees Nick and Bridget, she says: “Are those my babies?”
She even does that to some other people.
And yet, Burt won’t budge. So Bridget tries to help by getting an old friend named Gerry (William Smille) to install locks in their apartment. Just as he kisses her, he learns she has a husband (Josh Lucas) back home. And she also deals with her daughter, who got kicked out of her dorm for drinking, and hasn’t signed up for next semester’s classes, based on her relationship with Bridget.
“What They Had” is humorous and touching, all thanks to Chomko’s impressive filmmaking and the cast. It’s serious in the ways the characters deal with the mother, and how they deal with their own troubles. It’s sometimes funny, depending on how they use their words. And it’s emotional when you see the truth in these characters. I may not understand every problem, but I still feel for these characters.
Among the cast I’ve enjoyed, Danner is profound playing the Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Forester gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the father, Swank is perfect as the daughter, and Shannon has heart. These people know their words and drama.
The movie is also sentimental in its Alzheimer’s portrait. I was reminded of another Indie called “Still Alice.” That was about Julianne Moore adjusting herself to the disease. This one is about someone who thinks she’s a teen again, and the people who know she’s not well.
Again, this disease is serious, and the movie wants to inform other people about its outcomes. At least about the people who deal with the patient, and struggle to help.