What They Had ***

This mental illness drama has flaws, but it also has humor and warmth, and isn’t nearly as depressing as it may look. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

If we’re lucky, our parents grow old enough to see us off into the world, watch us graduate, get married, have kids of our own, etc. And if we’re especially fortunate, our parents will enjoy all of the above in good health. Thankfully, siblings Betty (Hilary Swank) and Nick (Michael Shannon) have enjoyed a loving, albeit a bit testy, relationship with their parents. But as we meet them in “What They Had,” their mother’s health has declined to the point that something must be done.

What’s fascinating about writer/director Elizabeth Chomko’s film is its perspective: We’ve seen many movies about Alzheimer’s (a word that is never spoken in “What They Had”) and dementia, but rarely do those stories focus on the effect the disease has on the afflicted person’s children. By taking this approach, Chomko has crafted a story that is relatable and touching, though occasionally heavy handed in ways you don’t necessarily expect.

Betty lives in Los Angeles and is unhappily married to Eddie (Josh Lucas). Their daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) is struggling in college, and not letting her parents know about it. It’s Christmas time when Betty gets a call from Nick asking her to come to Chicago, where their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) is struggling with mental illness. Ruth isn’t near death, but Nick has reached his end point in helping his parents. Now it’s Betty’s turn to try to persuade their father, Burt (Robert Forster), to put their mother in a memory care facility. Burt resists, even though he has heart issues, believing he can care for his wife of 60 years better than any facility can.

He may be right, but more importantly for the narrative his love for his wife is both inspiring (because he’s so devoted) and frustrating (because you sympathize with Betty and Nick’s frustration). Curiously, the moments depicting Ruth’s illness are often handled with humor: She flicks off someone in church. She tries to answer the phone with a stapler. She crawls into Betty’s bed, telling Betty there’s a strange man in her bed, referring to Burt. At one point she even hits on Nick, forgetting he’s her son. These are truthful, difficult moments that are handled with levity, and it’s a credit to Danner that Ruth is charmingly loveable rather than a sad victim.

The more serious matters are left to Betty and Nick, which allows the wonderfully talented Swank and Shannon to shine. Shannon’s Nick is one-dimensional: His life savings are invested in his struggling bar, and his obligations to his parents have contributed to not being able to sustain a relationship of his own. He’s an impatient hot head – there’s little nuance here, and there doesn't have to be. It’s Swank who has the more challenging role, as Betty is conflicted over what to do with her own marriage, her daughter and her parents. At one point Betty even invites the affection of Gerry (William Smillie), a locksmith and childhood friend, though she’s unsure of what exactly she wants.    
“What They Had” is a solid drama, unremarkable yet moving and not nearly as depressing as you may presume. Give it a shot and it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed.

Did you know?
Swank is one of 14 actresses to win two Best Actress Oscars; she won for “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).

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