Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as siblings are the best thing about ‘What They Had’

Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had understands how shared family history colors interpersonal relationships, and it’s judiciously fixated on how the ties that bind one family loosen as its matriarch, Ruth (Blythe Danner), slowly loses herself to Alzheimer’s.

At its best, the film crackles with character interplay, delighting in simply observing how a person’s words, gestures, and expressions can have cascading effects.

In the wake of a late-night journey that the pajama-clad Ruth takes through a snowy Chicago neighborhood, her family converges at her home to discuss her future. Early on, Chomko elegantly delineates each personality type and how its countered by its opposite. The film intuitively recognizes how a family is a whole built from its different parts, though one may wish that as the storyline pushes forward that it succumbed less to portentous melodrama.

“What They Had” begins, appropriately, in a state of confusion. Ruth (Blythe Danner) has wandered from her Chicago apartment into the snowy night, and husband Burt (Robert Forster) can’t find her. (Ruth has Alzheimer’s and is just as likely to be headed for her childhood home as her current one.)

Burt summons his middle-aged son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who’s concerned but also furious.

He knew this would happen. Soon Ruth and Burt’s other child, Bridget (Hilary Swank), is on her way from California with her college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Nicky resents Bridget for distancing herself from their parents’ problems; sulky Emma also resents her mother, but for other reasons.

After Ruth is found safe, a doctor explains that something bad might have happened to her that never even occurred to her family. If it seems obvious that Ruth needs the sort of care available in a home for people with incipient dementia, that’s not clear to Burt. While Bridget basically agrees with Nicky, she’s reluctant to do anything about it.

The title of writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s feature debut refers to Ruth and Burt’s shared history, evoked over-obviously by the family photos and home movies that Chomko intersperses throughout the movie. But the story is also about the relationship between Nicky and Bridget, and the damage done to both of them by their father. A military veteran and resolute Catholic, Burt trusts utterly in tradition and authority. He’s as sure that his wife shouldn’t live in a memory-care facility as he is about everything else.

Burt disapproves of both Nicky’s career — he runs a bar — and his son’s unmarried status. Bridget married someone that her father essentially picked out for her, and she’s now as unhappy in that union as her daughter is at school, where she feels she’s failing.

The scenes between Bridget (Hilary Swank) and her prickly brother, Nick (Michael Shannon), best epitomize What They Had‘s lived-in quality.

After Nick picks up Bridget and her daughter (Taissa Farmiga) at the airport. It’s as if the siblings resume a conversation that was cut off long ago. Chomko makes little room here for those moments of catch-up that seem to exist as delivery machines. That for expository background information.

Chomko grounds Bridget and Nick’s interplay in the sort of shorthand. That only develops after having known someone for many years. It’s almost as if the siblings are conversing telepathically as much as they are verbally and physically.

Chomko also deals honestly with how families must navigate a complex suite of emotions. When one of their own is gripped by dementia. In the film’s finest scene, Ruth and her husband, Bert (Robert Forster). Their family discuss children around the dinner table, leading to Ruth blurting out that she’s pregnant. Some members of the family politely shake off the comment, but Bridget and Nick can’t stop themselves from laughing.

It’s a moment that bravely acknowledges that humor is very much a defense against Alzheimer’s.

What They Had gracefully coasts on its patient observations of one family’s dynamics. But once the third act hits, Chomko goes about neatly tidying up seemingly every loose end.

Rather than continue to observe the family work through their differences. Which might have further showcased layers of everyone’s individual personalities. Chomko opts to show brief snippets of scenes where a certain resolution has been achieved. And not giving audiences an eyewitness account of the resolution process proves discordant.

What They Had‘s final scene, at once maudlin and absurd, very neatly encapsulates what Chomko’s film eventually becomes: A treacly drama that sees its characters become shadows of their former selves.

Where is Ruth in all this?

Barely present, except as a problem to be solved. Danner handles that role ably, but as written, Ruth is far less credible. That than characters in similar situations played by Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) and Julie Christie (“Away from Her”). While Ruth is often bewildered, she becomes rational only when the script requires, which is as convenient as it is unconvincing.

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(l-r.) Michael Shannon stars as “Nick”, Taissa Farmiga as “Emma”, Hilary Swank as “Bridget” and Robert Forster as “Bert” in Elizabeth Chomko’s WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Bleecker Street

If the characterization of Ruth is facile, it’s less so than the story’s final chapter. Despite the family’s losses, the movie ends in a sunny mode — literally, in this case, as the action hops from Chicago to California. The final moment, intended to generate smiles, is likely to earn groans instead.

What works best here comes between the movie’s heavy opening and its lightweight conclusion. That’s the relationship between cocksure Nicky and the wavering Bridget. Both of whom are embodied with extraordinary conviction by Shannon and Swank. Although not as acidly etched as the siblings in Tamara Jenkins’s superb 2007 film “The Savages,”. Nicky and Bridget are complicated, unidealized and believable. What they have seems more real — and more interesting — than what Ruth and Burt are in the process of losing.

INFO:

Rating: R (for language including a brief sexual reference)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Elizabeth Chomko
Stars: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster
Written By: Elizabeth Chomko
In Theaters: Oct 19, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Jan 8, 2019
Runtime: 101 minutes
Studio: Bleecker Street

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR WHAT THEY HAD

Cath Clarke
The script, inspired by Chomko’s grandparents’ marriage, throws up plenty of authentic-looking observations of life with Alzheimer’s.

Richard Roeper
Blythe Danner does a remarkable job of conveying Ruth’s irreversible path into total memory loss without turning her into a movie-of-the-week cliché.

Johanna Schneller
You may feel as if you’ve seen this movie before: Ruth has Alzheimer’s, her husband Burt is in denial and their grown children Nick and Bridget are at odds.

Bruce DeMara
What sets the film apart is the literate and insightful script by Elizabeth Chomko, who also directs, and a cast of stellar performers.

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