By Eleanor Ringel Cater
It’s Christmas and the family has gathered in Chicago. During an otherwise normal holiday dinner, the hostess, Ruth (Blythe Danner), with a sweet smile asks her guests, “And how do you two know each other?”
Given that Nick (Michael Shannon) and Bridget (Hilary Swank) are brother and sister and Ruth is their mom, it’s a bit awkward. It is also a bittersweet reminder that her Alzheimer’s isn’t getting any better.
Only a few nights ago, she wandered out in a snowstorm, wearing her nightie, apparently headed for a childhood home that no longer exists. So Bridget has flown in from California, her pouty daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow, to help her brother convince their father, Bert (Robert Forster) that it may be time to consider a nursing home.
Nobody is happy about this — except maybe Ruth who isn’t exactly tuned in; she mistakes a stapler for a phone and is prone to announcements like “I’m going to have a baby!”
However, Burt is particularly resistant. He doesn’t care that his adult children have gone to some trouble to find “the best memory care place in Chicago.” As far as Burt is concerned, he’s the best memory care in Chicago. He keeps up with her medicines, dyes her roots, picks up the dry cleaning, takes her to Mass. “She’s my girl,” he sputters. “You can’t take my girl away from me.”
There are been some superb movies about the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s — “Iris,” “Away From Her” and “Still Alice.” But “What They Had” is a bit different. Though Ruth is central to the story, the characters writer/director Elizabeth Chomko is really concerned with are Nick, Bridget and Burt.
Ruth’s illness exacerbates everything, from ancient sibling affection to still-fresh wounds. Nick has just purchased a spiffy new bar in downtown Chicago, but his dad insists on calling him a bartender. Has he come to see it, Sis asks. Of course not, Nick says. “Did you invite him?” she presses. “I shouldn’t have to invite him.”
Family dynamics rolled up into a tight little ball.
And as the film progresses, we begin to understand that just who can’t live without whom is a weighted question, not as easily answered as we initially supposed.
Swank and Shannon, who co-produced, have handed themselves richly emotional, often highly amusing roles. Shannon perfectly captures the son/caretaker’s seething resentment, especially in the face of his father’s condescension and dismissal.
And Swank, who often plays sure-of-themselves, bigger-than-life characters, nicely tones down her strong presence. Her only misstep is a plot choice that has her making a pass at an old high school boyfriend.
But good as the young — um, middle-aged — folks are, top kudos go to their elders. Danner is a marvel as the blankly agreeable Ruth, greeting everyone with an eager and enthusiastic, “Is that you my baby?”
And Forster, who we first saw on-screen in Chicago 50 years ago in “Medium Cool,” may have delivered a career best here. His Burt is as lost in his way as his beloved Ruth is in hers. She may not remember what they had, but he does and it is beyond painful for him to let it go, no matter what’s best for anyone. Including himself.
In the old days — say, the 20thCentury — a movie like this would be circling the Oscars. But at this point, there’s little room, apparently, for the well-made family drama sprinkled with humor. Especially when they’re doing them so well on Netflix.