What They Had

I get so confused when it comes to movies this time of the year. The studios send critics an insane amount of DVDs and computer links. So, I didn’t realize “What They Had” was what I had at home, when my wife and I drove to the Angelika Film Center to see it. Well, at least we both liked it. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t like this movie. It’s arguably the best ensemble of actors for a film all year.

Blythe Danner plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. Sure, we’ve all seen that set-up before. And yes, the movie does have a cliche or two.

Hilary Swank plays the daughter that flies to Chicago to help her brother deal with the situation, after mom walked through the snow in the middle of the night, to take a train back to her childhood home.

Her brother is played by Michael Shannon, going against type as a caring brother. Yet he still has the tough guy persona we see in his usual characters. He’s a bar owner (a “bartender” his angry dad would argue), and he thinks it’s time for them to put mom into a home. His sister, and dad, aren’t so sure.

The dad is played by Robert Forster, in a character very similar to the one he played in The Descendents. The anger he has at his son for insisting on what is best for his wife…and the love he shows for his wife…just breaks your heart. Sometimes that’s just helping her put on a sweater; other times that’s helping her color her hair and complete a story she’s telling someone.

When I hear women in the film industry complain about “not enough roles for women” this is a great example of why I shrug off such statements. Elizabeth Chomko is an actress that had this painful experience with her family, and she wrote this wonderful movie about it. And it gave two great roles to women (although the two guys in this give the most interesting performances, because of how the script is written). If women, or hell, anyone…doesn’t like what Hollywood is offering them, leave the business or write your own script.

Anyway, it’s amazing to think this is Chomko’s feature debut. And after watching Jonah Hill’s disappointing debut as a writer/director recently…this was a welcome surprise. It never feels manipulative in the depiction of grief, or with mawkish sentimentality. Some will argue it’s rather convenient how Danner has that movie version of Alzheimer’s where everything is cute and sweet. So if she’s at dinner and announces she’s going to have a baby, it’s funny. In real life, I’m guessing we’d see a lot more frustrating tantrums that aren’t as funny.

Speaking of tantrums, I completely forgot about the granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga of The Nun). She’s not getting along with her mom (Swank), and isn’t so sure she wants to return to college.

There are a few strained relationships, and surprisingly, lots of comedic relief that never feels forced. At one point, when Swank is getting into her dad’s black ‘60s convertible GTO, she asks “What happened to the Camry?”

He screams, “I’m 75-years-old. Fu** the Camry!”

The family feels like a real family, not a movie family. They rib each other, but you can tell there’s true affection there, too.

That makes the fights so much more powerful. A few angry scenes with Forster (one with Swank, one with Shannon), are done just brilliantly.

When Swank is arguing with Forster about how she was never good enough…what he says just gets the tears pouring out of your eyes.

When it’s suggested that his wife might be better off in a home, Forster just breaks your heart as he barks, “That’s my girl. You can’t take my girl from me!”

Bring the Kleenex, and head over to the Angelika.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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