“There were so many reasons I felt compelled to tell the story,” first-time director Elizabeth Chomko said of her film What They Had at Deadline’s Sundance Studio, “but the biggest one, I think, especially in hindsight, is the awareness that memories are a gift and that they’re precious.”
Memory loss is a key tenet in Chomko’s film, which she also wrote. The story follows a family dealing with the fallout of its matriarch’s descent into Alzheimer’s as estranged siblings Nick (Michael Shannon) and Bridget (Hilary Swank) are forced back together to make some difficult decisions about their parent’s future.
Speaking alongside Chomko were castmembers Shannon, Swank, Taissa Farmiga and Blythe Danner, who plays the dementia-stricken Ruth.
“The film is about a lot of things,” Chomko added, “but it’s certainly about coming of age at every stage of life and loving and letting go.”
Describing his character as “not quite sure of his place in the world,” Shannon said, “The one thing he’s very devoted to is his family and his parents and he’s kind of stayed behind and kept an eye on them.”
Conversely, Swank’s character seems at first glance to have it all together with her marriage and children, but inside she’s overstretched. “She’s holding herself together,” said Swank. “I think it’s really the plight of many women, because by nature we’re nurturers, and we give and we give and we give and sometimes it’s to the point where it’s not to our best interests.”
In essence, What They Had is a story of a normal family, with all the nuance inherent in that. “There’s a lot of stuff at play here,” Swank said. “There’s a lot of onion layers, there’s dysfunction, which there is in life, in every single family.”