I will admit that I was not in a hurry to watch my screener of What They Had, a movie about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Who wants to be depressed? There probably aren’t many of you who don’t have a family member who suffers from it, or worry about spending your own declining years lost to those you love.
But hey, I’m a professional. And having watched it, I can safely tell you that if you’re worried about being bummed out big time, don’t be. Based on experiences within her own family, writer-director Elizabeth Chomko explores the effects of early stage Alzheimer’s without yanking too much at the heartstrings.
The family under investigation is headed by Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth (Blythe Danner). On Christmas Eve—traditionally as cold in Chicago, where the film is set, as it is here—Ruth gets up in the middle of the night, puts on her slippers and walks to a train station. She’s found before anything happens to her, but not before Burt has called in son Nicky (Michael Shannon), who owns a bar in Chicago, and daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank), who lives with her family in California.
As the son in town, Nicky is adamant that it’s time to put mom in a facility that can deal with her. He summoned his sister to act as back up when he confronts their father, who is equally adamant that he can take care of his wife and live life just as they have or so many years. But Bridget is not a decision maker. She’s living through an unhappy marriage because she was never able to stand up for what she wanted against what everyone else thought was best for her.
If this all sounds like fairly standard family drama, the kind of stuff that fills hours and hours on the Lifetime and Hallmark Channels, that’s because it is. It’s heartfelt, and generally thoughtful, but nonetheless awfully familiar.
But that hardly matters when you have a cast like this. Swank, Shannon, Danner and Forster all invest their roles with more skill than the script might deserve, resulting in a film that may not be hugely memorable but is never less than watchable.
Two notes: if you are the kind of person like me who pays attention to time references, you should understand that the story takes place in around 2005.
And if at all possible (though I know it’s not), try to miss the final 30 seconds of the movie. This final scene features an appearance by a feathered symbol that is likely to set uncharitable audiences to outbursts of laughter, ruining the mood the director has worked to hard to establish. Not that it isn’t her own fault.