Sunday 11 October 2020

Movie Review: What They Had (2018)

A routine family drama, What They Had features earnest discussions about difficulties faced by middle-aged adults dealing with aging parents and college-aged children, but introduces little that is new. 

In Chicago, the elderly Ruth Everhardt (Blythe Danner) is suffering from worsening dementia and wanders away from home in the middle of the night during a snowstorm. She is found safe, much to the relief of her husband of 60 years Bert (Robert Forster). But the incident is the last straw for her son Nicky (Michael Shannon), a bar owner who now insists Ruth should live in a care facility. Bert, who has a heart condition, disagrees and wants Ruth to stay home and in his care.

Nicky's sister Bitty (Hilary Swank) flies in from California with her 20 year old daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Bitty is caught between Nicky's eagerness to place Ruth in care and Bert's resistance to any change. The trip also prompt Bitty to reassess her life, including addressing Emma's disinterest in attending college and confronting dissatisfaction within her own marriage to husband Eddie (Josh Lucas).

An independent low-key production, What They Had enjoys a stellar cast in fine form, but otherwise rarely rises above conventional fare. Falling somewhere between television-level movie-of-the-week familiarity and a small-cast stage show with the drama confined to just a couple of sets, the film replays many of the notes already heard with various intensities in films like Away From Her, The Leisure Seeker, Amour, and Still Alice.

Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko gradually shifts focus from Ruth to Bitty, and What They Had is ultimately the story of a woman stuck in the doldrums: feeling guilty about being separated from her ailing parents, trapped in a frigid marriage, unsatisfied in her career, unable to communicate with her daughter, and always bickering - or loudly arguing - with her expletives-loving brother. It's a big load for one character to carry in a 101 minute movie, and despite Hilary Swank's best efforts, most of the resolutions are flash fried.

Humour derived from Ruth's dotty behaviour adds the occasional spark, and the film is nothing if not honest in its fidelity to the dilemmas, frustrations, and the is-this-all-there-is questions thrust into the face of the sandwich generation. But What They Had tries too hard to evoke nostalgia through fading and jerky 8mm film recreations of Bert and Ruth's glory years, the soulful past unable to compensate for the present gaps in creativity.

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