While writing on Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, I mentioned that as the director was accepting his Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, he was encouraging other filmmakers to make more films about real life and real people. Elizabeth Chomko’s first feature, What They Had, which she wrote and directed seems to satisfy the quest for the “real”.
It is a family drama. Bridget (Hillary Swank) returns to Chicago to help out his brother Nick (Michael Shannon) who has a hard time convincing his father Burt (Robert Forster) to consider a nursing center as their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) is putting herself in danger due to her Alzheimer’s disease. While the situation needs an urgent decision, Bridget finds herself questioning her own marriage.
Movies about the Alzheimer’s disease are usually heart breaking due to the nature of the disease. Still Alice and, of course, The Notebook are two such films I remember that struck me. What They Had is noteworthy in the sense that it is based on Chomko’s true story of her grandmother.
Chomko’s grandmother was diagnosed with the disease when she was 68, and the family was heartbroken and they thought they wouldn’t ever feel joy again. As opposed to that, the director admits that they laughed harder, if anything. Hints of such funny moments are scattered within the story.
Chomko says that she was perhaps more devastated for her grandfather. The two were still flirting at their 60s and had the sweetest love. Their story is the inspiration behind Burt and Ruth’s perfect marriage, which makes Bridget question whether her marriage is anything like what they have, as a side story to the family drama.
Despite the doctors suggesting a “memory-care center,” Burt claims he is the embodiment of Ruth’s memory center after being married for so many years and knowing how many ice she likes in her Scotch whiskey. Their love has evolved to a solid partnership no matter what, and a genuine companionship that endures the most difficult circumstances.
Both Swank and Danner had been the caregivers for their father and husband respectively, therefore the story was close to home for the two actresses. The director states how she was “just blown away watching them become this utterly believable family.”
The resentment between the siblings is also depicted through lenses of a real simplicity: Nick stayed in Chicago, so he is the one to pick up the alarming midnight calls when their mother wanders off. Bridget, on the other hand, lives in California therefore she doesn’t know how things are back home as she didn’t deal with the disease first-hand.
What They Had tells a touchy, emotional story of a family dealing with unspoken resentments and opinionated judgements as well as a disease. The film stands out thanks to the brilliant performances of all actors, making the film very real, as Leigh would have liked.