Though its causes remain shrouded in mystery, Alzheimer’s Disease is unmistakably on the rise, and will become an ever-growing public issue as senior populations and longevity itself each continue to expand. We’re still at an early stage in terms of its dramatization, however — apart from “Away From Her” and “Still Alice,” there haven’t been that many notable screen depictions of Alzheimer’s, or of progressive dementia in general.
Actor-playwright Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature “What They Had” is a particularly welcome addition to that so-far slim canon, since it finds ways to bring considerable humor to a grim subject, without trivializing it. This satisfying drama provides excellent roles for a fine cast, particularly Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank and Robert Forster. Highlighting the awards-worthiness of those turns will probably beat the best path to commercial success, particularly in theatrical release.
Getting up in the middle of the night, Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes for a walk — which might not be a significant event if she didn’t venture out into a Greater Chicago winter wearing little more than a nightgown. By the time hubby Burt (Forster) notices her absence, she’s nowhere to be found. Once she’s finally been located and taken to an area hospital, miraculously unharmed, the crisis has seen daughter Bridget (Swank) fly in from California with her own offspring Emma (Taissa Farmiga), summoned by brother Nick (Michael Shannon).
It’s short-tempered, stubborn bar owner Nick, very much his ex-military dad’s son, who views this incident as final proof that mom just be put in a care facility. He’s already scouted a local “memory center” designed to serve people with her needs, and there’s assisted-living housing that would enable Burt to remain just a stone’s throw away from his wife. But Burt, neck-deep in denial, refuses to even entertain the idea. With his dank opinion of nursing homes reinforced by Ruth’s own long career working at them, he chooses to ignore or belittle all the increasingly blunt signs of her deterioration — even the fact that she sometimes she no longer recognizes him.
Equally bull-headed Nick and his father lock horns over everything, so Nick hopes his sister will back him up in his plans for their mom’s long-term care. But Bridget has always been the passive sibling, caving to daddy’s well-meaning but unbending will. Plus she’s preoccupied with marital dissatisfaction back home, as well as problematic relations with sulky Emma, who’s gotten kicked out of her college dorm and shows signs of not wanting to continue school at all.
Taking place over a few days at Christmas time — though this family has too many pressing concerns to notice the holiday much — “What They Had” nicely weaves in an assortment of domestic conflicts around its central issue. Parent-child dynamics, sibling relations and fear of commitment (Nick has strung his girlfriend along for decades without a proposal) are deftly considered alongside the primary question of what to do with mom.
Chomko mitigates a fairly heavy narrative agenda with a great deal of humor, sometimes threatening to make things a little too seriocomic, but never quite crossing the line into pat dramedy. Likewise, she holds sentimentality in reserve, with the result being that a film largely consisting of argumentative scenes ends quite touchingly with a stretch of judiciously low-key reconciliations and forward-looking tranquility.
Danner is very good as the subject of all this fuss, with moments of clarity surfacing like oases in a mind now mostly locked in the distant past. But hers is a figure more discussed than seen. The film really belongs to Swank, sympathetically nuanced in one of her best recent roles; a delightfully brusque, caustic, playful Shannon; and Forster, who’s played many irascible types in recent years but here makes the most of a fully rounded character.
Keeping its focus straightforwardly on psychology and storytelling, “What They Had” doesn’t go for stylistic elements that might distract from that conceit. Its packaging is handsome but not showy, with Roberto Schaefer’s widescreen lensing and other tech/design contributions all discreetly polished.
One minor but nagging flaw is that the staged home movies and backstory for Burt and Ruth (she had polio, he served in the Korean War) seem a little too “old” for these characters. Both actors were born in the early 1940s, so their young adulthood should reflect the very different styles and realities of the ’60s — not a decade prior, as is implied here.