“What They Had” is the kind of small, unremarkably titled film that could easily fall between the awards season cracks. That would be a pity since this debut feature from writer-director Elizabeth Chomko is one of the year’s best indie dramas, one that should hit home with a wide range of viewers sure to relate to the achingly authentic family dynamics on display.
At the core of this lovely, heartbreaking, yet often buoyant movie is the irrevocable march into Alzheimer’s disease by Ruth (Blythe Danner), a woman in her 70s, and its acute impact on her devoted husband, Bert (Robert Forster), and their middle-aged kids: Bridget, or “Bitty,” (Hilary Swank) and Nick (Michael Shannon).
We’ve certainly seen elements of this story on the big screen before, including in “Iris,” “Away from Her” and “Still Alice.” But what distinguishes Chomko’s approach to the true-life inspired material (her beloved grandmother had Alzheimer’s) is how much of the film compellingly looks beyond the plight of family linchpin Ruth.
Ruth’s family members, also including Bitty’s surly, college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), are complex, dimensional, everyday people explored with love and candor and a lived-in familiarity via Chomko’s fine writing, superbly matched by the work of her dream quartet of leads.
After Ruth wakes up late one snowy December night, wanders off from her and Bert’s Chicago apartment and somehow boards a train, she lands in the hospital for observation. Nick summons the California-based Bitty to come home: Now more than ever, he needs help convincing their father, who’s in deep denial, to place Ruth in a memory care facility.
It is, of course, easier said than done as Korean War vet Bert is a hard “no.” Prickly new bar-owner Nick is always at odds with his obstinate — and not dissimilar — dad, and Bitty, a chef who’s got problems of her own with both Emma and husband Ed (Josh Lucas), doesn’t have the gumption to truly take on the implacably old-school, devout Catholic Bert (much less anyone else).
So while the battle to move Ruth into a nursing home forms the narrative spine here (she coincidentally had a long career in elder health care), Chomko deftly moves the story forward via the remaining family’s ingrained conflicts and emotionally charged interactions: Bert negating his children’s wishes for Ruth, opposites Bitty and Nick pushing sibling hot buttons, Bitty battling the resentful Emma, and more. They make for an involving series of powerful, at times darkly amusing, always truthful face-offs.
Peppered in are golden bits with the sweet and gentle Ruth who, despite the occasional flash of clarity, is lost to her illness. Yet she’s still tuned-in just enough to know how wrong things are and that her time living at home is — and should be — drawing to a close.
Ruth brings out the best, however, in Bert, whose staunch dedication to her physical and emotional well-being, as well as to their many decades together, is a thing of beauty.
The radiant Danner, one of the greats, is perfection here, while Forster gives a stunning, Oscar-worthy turn as a man struggling to hold onto a blissful past to ward off a frightening future.
As the film’s nominal lead, Swank is also terrific, juggling Bitty’s control-freak impulses with her character’s dire need for forward momentum. That part of her change eventually comes in such an unplanned way proves one of the film’s nicest surprises.
As for Shannon, he again shows why he’s one of his generation’s most gripping, provocative actors. He impeccably slips into the blunt and bullying Nick’s blue-collar Chicago rhythms, which are scripted with spot-on precision by Windy City native Chomko. (She really nails Bert’s no-nonsense, Midwest patois too.)
Shannon also poignantly captures how, despite Nick’s gruff exterior, he’s still just a man-boy looking for his dad’s approval. For all of Nick and Bert’s shared bluster, their inevitable rapprochement is wonderfully understated. Bring your handkerchiefs.
‘What They Had’
Rated: R, for language including a brief sexual reference
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Playing: Starts Oct. 19, The Landmark, West Los Angeles