WHAT THEY HAD (2018)


 Greetings again from the darkness. “Til death do us part.” Only far too often, long term marriages are not broken by death, but instead by memories being cruelly erased through disease. Alzheimer’s and Dementia are dreadful diseases, even in the early stages. Writer-Director Elizabeth Chomko uses her feature film debut not to analyze the specifics of these diseases, but instead to focus on the incredibly personal and emotional fallout they produce.

At first glance, Bridget (Hilary Swank) seems to have figured things out in life. She’s a California career woman married to a successful man (Josh Lucas), and their daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) is a college student. Slowly, the truth is unfurled – much of it after she receives a frantic call from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) back home in Chicago. Their mother (Blythe Danner) is missing, having wandered out into a snow storm wearing her pajamas. Bridget and her daughter Emma hop on a plane and land in the middle of a huge family ordeal. See, Nick is exhausted from being the caregiver, and believes the best thing for their mother (and for him) is to move her into an extended care facility. Dad (Robert Forster) is adamant that she remain home with him, where she (and he) are most comfortable.

Of course, the turmoil doesn’t end there. Bridget is in a loveless marriage. Emma has been evicted from her dorm for drinking. Nick’s long-time girlfriend has booted him to the backroom of the bar he owns. Bert, the father, is unwilling to accept or even discuss surrendering the life he’s known for decades. Ruth, the mom, is as apt to make a move on her son as to remember her daughter’s name. Contrasting personalities abound in this house. Despite having power of attorney, Bridget is still intimidated by her bullying father, and seems to have no empathy for the burden carried by Nick. It’s all very messy – just like a real family, and filmmaker Chomko revels in it.

It’s so wonderful to see Robert Forster in such a hefty role. These days, he’s typically relegated to a tertiary character where he mostly frowns and grunts. Not this time. He is at once a bullying force within the family, and an elderly man treading on fragile ground. He belittles his grown kids by calling his bar owner son a “bartender”, and having coerced his daughter into marrying a man for security. Mr. Forster nails the role, as does Michael Shannon as his irksome son. Shannon is one of the best actors working today and he is mesmerizing with his snap backs – sometimes funny, sometimes mean, sometimes both.

There is some horrible relationship advice served up. The family philosophy is “pick somebody you can stand, and make a commitment”, as there’s no such thing as “bells and whistles”. It’s not the romantic chatter most movies provide, but it plays to the complicated bond between parents and kids (of all ages). Director Chomko brilliantly and accurately handles the gut-wrenching effects of Alzheimer’s. She embraces laughter as a coping mechanism, and reminds us to enjoy the rare moments of clarity – those times a parent can remember who you are. There are a few cringe-inducing moments of mushy melodrama, but for the most part, Ms. Chomko delivers.

watch the trailer:

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