Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (The Homesman, 2014) leads an all-star cast of wonderful performances as she plays a woman returning home to chilly Chicago to help take care of her mother battling dementia (played by a terrifically fragile Blythe Danner, Hearts Beat Loud, 2018). Swank's character also has to convince her staunch, bullheaded father (Robert Forster, London Has Fallen, 2016) to place her ailing mother in a special care facility. What They Had was first released in November 2018 and is now available on a personal movie viewing platform of your choice.
The swiftly written dialogue naturally captures the frustrations, familiarities, criticisms, and tenderness inherent in many family relationships. Lots of nice moments of family support are mixed with relatable arguments, surprisingly gentle punchlines, and startling revelations as parent and child or brother and sister try to navigate difficult changes in their lives or try to unpack emotional baggage from their past.
What They Had felt like a lighter, more watered-down version of other family dramas centered on the tragedies of aging like Away from Her (2006), The Savages (2007), Amour (2012), and Still Alice (2014). Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko (mostly known as an actress in short films and TV appearances) is a modest, fresh new voice in contemporary American film, and it will be compelling to see her vision and style mature through more experience.
What They Had takes viewers into a strange direction in the last third of the film, and it could have been more interesting if it remained focused on the effects of aging and memory loss (specifically the effects of aging and memory loss on different generations in the family). It's not a triumph, but it raises some important, thought-provoking questions many families have to address with each other as they continue to grow.