What They Had review: Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play brother and sister in this light-hearted though sometimes hard-hitting drama about a family who pulls together when their mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s takes a turn for the worse.

What They Had review
Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

What They Had review [TIFF]

Swank leads the cast as Bridget Ertz, a mother living with her teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) and husband (Josh Lucas) in California. A call out of the blue sees her rush back to the family home in Chicago where her ailing mother, Ruth, played by Blythe Danner has disappeared. Her father, Burt (Robert Forster), is clearly distraught, and it is the consensus that Ruth belongs in a home, something that he is unwilling to commit to after the fifty or so years that they haven’t left one another’s side and the retirement that are both trying to enjoy.

Shannon’s bar owner Nick is constantly thrusting retirement home/ mind management institutions into his father’s hand, but Burt is having none of it. Ruth is physically present with the best intentions, but her mind seems a little pre-occupied, and despite her eagerness, get the impression that things aren’t picture-perfect in her seemingly ideal world back home in California.

A series of confrontations and arguments between the family line the entire movie, something which lends itself to comedy as well as drama, Ruth’s outburst often funny, but obviously heart-breaking. She sometimes forgets who her family is – constantly refers to her children and her babies, and refers to her husband, as her ‘boyfriend’, despite Forster’s character pointing out the photographs of them together throughout their lifetime, scattered everywhere.  She’s unable to dress, obviously go out on her own, and must have constant attention – and the strains are starting to show.

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Danner is superb as Ruth, matched by Forster’s heart-rendering turn as Burt, who is also in his mid-seventies. Swank returns to the kind of role which reminds us of those two Oscar-winning turns from ten-plus years ago in Boys Don’t Cry and then Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. She’s back to the level of form in this, reminding us of how great she can be. Her Bridget is a troubled woman herself, full of inner torment who strives to keep herself occupied and not deal with her own problems that are constantly lurking in the back of her own mind. Farmiga isn’t given as much to do, but her role as Emma is also pivotal to proceedings, while Michael Shannon commands every scene he’s in – playing a more comedic character, one that we haven’t seen him do that much in the past, and here he’s the absolute stand-out amongst a collective cast that are absolutely at the top of their game.

What They Had is the kind of film that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure; as hilarious as it is heart-breaking. A film that makes you want to go home and hug your family as soon as you leave the auditorium. We doubt whether it will be bothering awards voters come the new season, but What They Had is a striking, memorable debut from writer/ director Elizabeth Chomko, and well worth your time.

What They Had review by Paul Heath, September 2018.

What They Had