It's difficult to encapsulate the sincere heartbreak of What They Had, but undeniably, this is an absolutely stunning debut from writer-director Elizabeth Chomko. The film opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
Blythe Danner plays Ruth, a mother entering the beginning phase of Stage 6 of Alzheimer's. After Ruth walks across Chicago in her nightgown during a blizzard on Christmas Eve, her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) flies home from California to meet her brother Nicky (Michael Shannon). Together, they try to convince their father Burt (Robert Forrester) to finally get Ruth the professional attention she desperately needs.
What They Had references the 60-year love affair between Ruth and Burt, a beautiful existence that's slowly deteriorating from Ruth's memory loss. Burt doesn't want to let go of his wife and struggles to accept that the relationship they have is slowly turning into nothing more than a memory — and a memory that only he can remember.
Bridget's return to the family homestead serves as the catalyst that forces her to reckon with her own problems. Seeing the pure love between her parents leads her to question her own marriage, one she seems to have entered into out of an obligatory need to keep up the appearance of what's "expected." Noticing the dedication she has to her own parents also causes her to reconsider how she interacts with her own daughter, Emma, a soon-to-be college dropout, played effortlessly by Taissa Farmiga. Merry Christmas, indeed.
Most of the conflict takes place behind closed doors, in the confinement of the family home, but What We Had does offer some laugh-inducing instances of levity, like a Christmas Mass that ends with Ruth drinking the holy water. Unfortunately, for every moment that brings a cathartic sense of relief, the pain between the family members consistently serves as a tearful reality.
What They Had is an honest portrayal of the struggle of watching someone you love disappear before your eyes and a beautiful portrait of family unity during tragedy.