(Release Info London schedule; March 1st, 2019, Peckham Multiplex, 95 a Rye Lane, 15:45 PM)
"What They Had"
From first-time director Elizabeth Chomko, "What They Had" centers on a family in crisis. Bridget Erzt (Hilary Swank) returns home to Chicago at her brother’s Nick (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) and her father’s Burt (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together.
After her ailing mother wanders off during a blizzard, Bridget returns to her childhood home in Chicago, accompanied by her rebellious college-age daughter. Forced to referee between her father’s stubborn insistence that his wife remain at home and her equally determined brother’s efforts to place her in a sought-after memory care facility, Bridget struggles to make sense of a lifetime of family conflict. With her mother’s decline becoming increasingly obvious, long-simmering resentments make an already difficult decision close to impossible.
Bridget, a California chef, is called home to Chicago when her ailing mother Ruth disappears in the middle of a blizzard. With her rebellious daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow, Bridget arrives to find Ruth safe, but increasingly confused and disoriented. Ruth’s latest excursion is the last straw for her son Nicky, who believes she needs to be in a memory care facility, but her husband Burt (Robert Forster) insists that her place is with him at home in the life they have made together. Bridget struggles with her own troubled marriage, her complicated relationship with Emma and her guilt about having left her family in Chicago. As Nicky pushes her to put Ruth in a nursing home and Bert grows angry with her interference, Bridget searches for a solution that will make everyone happy. Then, the family faces one more unexpected crisis that forces her into an impossible position. "What They Had" is an intimate and tender story of a challenge faced by many families. A poignant look at a heart-wrenching and familial dilemma.
At the center of "What They Had’s" family drama is Bridget Ertz, a 40-something chef contemplating the next stage of her life. Women especially are inclined to put others first and often lose touch with their own needs, just as Bridget has. “What They Had" is about a family and about a woman in her 40s coming into her own in a very nature way. Then there's a family crisis that serves as a kick-starter for looking at how she’s been living her life. She learns how differently we see our parents at each point of our lives. We've all these beautiful revelations that we've as we mature that give us respect for our parents’ journeys. The message at the heart of the film is universal. Ruth, provides the heart of the family and the soul of the movie with seemingly little effort. She was a working woman with a highly responsible position, and you can imagine the frustration, confusion and anger that losing her mental acuity would bring. When we first meet Ruth, she's already on her way down the road. She's always outgoing and cheerful, which is a major chord in her life that she's somehow able to hang on to.
As her memory fades, Ruth has become increasingly dependent on her husband, Burt. Burt adores her and treats her like a doll. He paints her toenails, colors her hair and maintains her in a loving way. But it has to be traumatizing for such an accomplished person to start to realize how completely needy she's becoming. The way Burt looks at life is that you do the right thing. You do it with commitment and fierce loyalty. There’s a nobility in doing what you're supposed to do and getting to the important stuff now, including taking care of your family. Start there. Because life is an arc. When you’re born you depend on your parents to take care of you. Then you learn to take care of yourself. Then it’s your turn to take care of others and finally, you've to rely on the ones you've parented. Burt is protecting his wife and putting up the fight of his life, according. Because Nicky stayed in Chicago while his sister slipped away to 'The West Coast', he has been managing his elderly parent's situation alone. With his mother’s condition deteriorating and his father weighed down by his denial of the seriousness of the situation, Nicky has turned to his sister for some support.
Nicky is that critical voice we all have in our heads that chatters away about our perceived failings. Nicky is not the antagonist in the story; the only antagonist is time; but he does serve as that voice, confronting them all with painful truths. And he’s usually right. And that pushes them all to grow, to come of age. Coming of age is not something we do once; we’re always coming of age. That’s what the film is in many ways, three generations coming of age. While Bridget’s husband remains in California, her sulky daughter Emma accompanies her to Chicago. Emma is a girl on the brink of adulthood struggling hard to live up to her mother’s expectations. So hard that she hasn’t taken the time to figure out her own expectations. She’s about to enter the world, but her mother has been smothering her with her own thoughts and opinions and anxieties. She and her mother aren’t that different. They are both so busy worrying about others that they haven’t taken time to think about their own happiness. We didn’t have the real estate for a deep expositional dive on what's going on with Emma.
In "What They Had", director Elizabeth Chomko transforms her family’s history into an intensely personal, often funny and lovingly optimistic story about love, duty and self-discovery. When Chomko’s beloved grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 17 years ago, her family rallied to support her and her husband as they faced one of the biggest challenges of their lives. Knowing little about Alzheimer’s, one of the most common forms of dementia, Chomko feared that her grandmother was destined to become a shell of her former self, stripped of all the important moments of her life. Chronicling her grandparent's story feels like an opportunity for Chomko to spend time with them again.
It's heartbreaking, of course, but it's also life-affirming, and spiritual, and absolutely hilarious. It brings you family closer together, and pulls you apart, and forces you to reckon with things we never wanted to look at. It prompts all of us to sort of come of age, no matter how old we're. What are we without our memories? It's a fight against fading memory. The film is an intergenerational love story, tells the story of a loving couple slowly losing the life they built together. It's also about the love between mothers and daughters, and about a woman learning to love herself. There’s heroism in everyday people. Caregiving is a truly heroic act. It’s challenging and often thankless and we don’t have a formula for it; there's never an easy answer for the questions it poses. As our world grows older, more of us will find ourselves suddenly parenting our parents, co-parenting them with our siblings. In the saddest moments of our lives, the heaviness has to be broken and that’s often with laughter. We should always be asking ourselves what we want out of our lives. Are we being fulfilled? Are we connecting? Because life is short, and we should try to live it to the fullest and be grateful to those who help us along the way. On social media, everyone has a perfect life, so you try and be perfect. This family is handling painful, complicated things and becoming better people by doing that.
The film looks a bit of a documentary-like approach with the shooting, so it feels like you're there, but the film wants to make things a bit more beautiful than in real life; colors more saturated, certain images more classically composed. Because when you look back, things always seems more beautiful in your memory than it did when you lived it. And as with any family, there are secrets in closets, shadows in corners; there are creaky old resentments. The film captures that darkness, shoot through doorways, find shadows in the shots. The story is relatively simple, which allows everything else to be complex and sticky and odd-ball and human, the way only real life can be. So very many of us are affected by memory loss. There’s something in the film that makes people laugh and cry and perhaps walk away with the same sense of hope.