Run time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Stars: Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster
Director: Elizabeth Chomko
What They Had may be the best movie yet made about Alzheimer’s and its impact on families — a timely topic, since the Centers for Disease Control has estimated that America’s dementia-patient population will double to 13.9 million by 2060, and family members are often the caregivers. Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko, inspired by her own experience after her grandmother’s diagnosis, superbly gets to the heart not only of the Alzheimer’s patient — the focus of most of the very few movies that dare to tackle it — but of everyone in the family.
Blythe Danner, 75, is ethereally realistic as the patient, a Chicago grandma who slips between the present and the past, sometimes acutely aware of her precarious condition, at times piercingly insightful, and sometimes blithely oblivious, such as when she wanders from home into a midnight Christmas blizzard, panicking everyone. As her husband and caregiver, who shouts down any talk of sending her to a “memory facility,” Robert Forster, 77, gives a performance so moving that Hollywood insiders give him good odds for his second Oscar nomination. This film should be awash with honors.
As Forster’s neglected son, who shares his obstinate temper and urgently believes his mom does need a medical facility, Michael Shannon has never been better. His nerves are frayed and sparky over his mom’s affliction, simmering resentments and his troubled new business — a bar his dad won’t deign to visit. When his more-favored sister (Hilary Swank) flies in from California to help solve the crisis, their emotional combat is completely believable.
Swank, a double Oscar winner who’s back in Hollywood’s fast lane after taking years off from acting to be her dad’s caregiver during his lung transplant, is convincingly torn as a daughter who can see both sides of the dilemma. Her brother is right, their mom’s in peril. Yet her dad is right that no stranger could care for her like he does. The scene of Swank watching Forster paint Danner’s toenails (while joshing softly about what his poker buddies would say to see it) is heart-melting, tender and true.
Yet there’s an unexpected wealth of humor in the film, too, and Chomko says that’s true to life as well. Sometimes caregivers cope through jokes, and the odd things Alzheimer’s makes people say and do really can strike loved ones (and even the patients themselves) as funny. Though the moments of humor may make the audience a bit uncomfortable, they don’t serve to exclude or marginalize the patient; they bind the family together, strengthening the web of contradictory love. But there’s tension — bonds can snap and words blurted in a moment’s rage can resonate for decades, if not generations.
For a first-time director, Chomko juggles a complicated story nimbly, though she’s better on narrative and character than cinematic flash and dazzle. She manages to fit in a lot of family history — Swank's doomed marriage to a nice, dull guy (Josh Lucas) that she married to please her overbearing dad, her strained relationship with her college-dropout daughter (Taissa Farmiga), and her brother's aversion to marriage, which influences their response to their Alzheimer's crisis. Your family may differ in the details, but this movie feels like coming home to complicated problems we’re all going to have to process someday. What They Had isn’t forgettable entertainment, it’s a work of art that helps us imagine how to face the unimaginable with grace, tears and redeeming laughter. Together.
What They Had is in select theaters Oct. 19 and nationwide Nov. 2.