It’s not very often that a film can boast both a well-written script and dynamic acting. In the rare instance that this combination does occur, it is almost impossible to leave the theater unmoved. In director Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial and screenwriting debut, tragedy and comedy collide to create one of the most realistic family dramas in recent years.
The premise is simple enough. After their matriarch wanders the Chicago streets one snowy night, the Ertz family must come together over the Christmas holiday to figure out how to handle the final stages of their mother’s Alzheimer’s. What adds to the complexity of the piece is the subtle nuances of the script? Subtle feminist elements are refreshingly interspersed throughout, though it feels natural and never preachy. Every line seems needed, nothing added for dramatic effect.
Chomko finds the naturally comedic moments in the midst of what might seem to be melodramatic at the hands of another writer or director. At the dinner table, Ruth (Blythe Danner) loudly pronounces that she is pregnant, sending the entire family down a rabbit hole of questions and laughter. Instead of sadness or grief in situations where Ruth can’t remember who, when, or where she is, laughter and joy shine through. Chomko’s script never pokes fun at Ruth, always at the unfortunate situation, they are in.
In an Oscar-worthy performance, Blythe Danner brilliantly plays matriarch Ruth. Playing some with Alzheimer’s, especially in the final stages of the disease, must be challenging. You must capture the childlike wonder, the confusion, the love, the rare moment of lucidity, without overacting or exploiting the condition. Instead, Danner’s performance is layered and heartbreaking. The strength and honesty Danner projects in this film elevates every other actor’s performance.
Leading the rest of the cast is Hilary Swank as Bet, an unhappy wife and mother living in California, trying to navigate fulfill everyone else’s needs while figuring out her own. This pairs well with Robert Forster and Taissa Farmiga as Bet’s stubborn father and daughter respectively. Swank works best with Michael Shannon’s Nicky, her wise-cracking bar owner brother still yearning for his father’s approval. Shannon’s performance provides a warm brotherly light on the film, drawing the audiences eye in every scene he is in. Dropping one-liners and hard truths at the drop of a hat, you know the character from your own life and yet you still want Shannon to follow you around, cracking jokes and making you a Manhattan whenever life gets too hard.
The chemistry between the actors is evident, as some of the most touching moments are the ones communicated with a look or smirk. Shannon is a master at this, drawing the eye back to him to see how he will react to his family crisis. Though the film is slightly slow paced in some parts, you are hanging on each actor’s every look. You believe that they are a real family.
Chomko’s directing is simple. It’s nothing fancy or something we haven’t seen before. This is smart. Because the script is so tight and the performances so stellar, Chomko knows not to detract from what makes the film work. No fancy camera work is involved, though slight pans and the occasional close up do enough to support the performances and script to tell the story visually.
What makes What They Had so special is that you know those people. The mother growing older, slipping out of her mother role and back into a child one. The sister trying to fulfill and satisfy her family needs, the college-aged daughter trying to hide her issues from her parents, the brother using humor to callout family crap and to cope with disappointment, the husband trying to do what’s best for the love of his life while holding unreasonable expectations over his adult children. What They Had is ultimately a story of family, of comedy in tragedy, of the expectations of the roles we have to play and what happens when those dynamics shift.
What They Had is playing in select theaters.
Final Grade: A