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With: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas
Written by: Elizabeth Chomko
Directed by: Elizabeth Chomko
MPAA Rating: R for language including a brief sexual reference
Running Time: 101
Date: 10/19/2018

What They Had (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Forget Me Nots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This big-hearted drama, a feature writing and directing debut by Elizabeth Chomko, is impeccably cast and acted, with vivid, intricate relationships played out on a deceptively feisty, unruly canvas.

In What They Had, Chomko, who was previously an actress and playwright, brings together five of the very best actors around, and they form a tangled, passionate family unit so strong that it feels their lives together started before the movie began. Each character is viewed as if from the inside, with his or her own logical, reasonable hopes and wants and desires.

In the movie, Ruth (Blythe Danner), who has Alzheimer's, wanders out into a New York snowstorm. Ruth's daughter, Bridget (Hilary Swank) is called and arrives soon after with her own daughter, Ruth's granddaughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Bridget's father, Burt (Robert Forster), tells her everything is fine, but her brother Nicky (Michael Shannon) insists that it is not.

Ruth's condition has been getting worse, and Nicky has been taking everything while trying to run a bar and trying to salvage his suffering relationship. Meanwhile, Bridget has been largely absent, and Burt is in denial. Over the course of a few days at Christmastime, all the family members re-assess their priorities and relationships, while Bridget wrestles with the fact that her own marriage has grown stale.

Subsequently, they clash with each other in a totally organic way. Even Farmiga's bratty teen Emma seems dead-on. Nothing feels forced or driven by the plot; it's far from a soap opera. Perhaps better still, Chomko deals with the subject of Alzheimer's with a light, casual touch.

This is not a disease-of-the-week movie that heavily, miserably focuses on the malady itself rather than on characters; this is the opposite. This is about how characters are affected by what's going on, and every scene springs to life. While it's still not an easy subject to digest, What They Had is overall a great big messy hug of a movie.

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