What they had – “Love is a commitment,” says Burt (Robert Forster) the patriarch of this traditional, Catholic, Chicago family when his children tell them that their mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner) should be placed in a nursing home, given her progressing dementia. Burt would insist that he is perfectly capable of taking care of his wife, as he always did not only for her but for the whole family. This sensitive topic has been the focus of numerous films in recent years –no doubt, an ageing North American population, with an increasing occurrence of this phenomenon, makes it a relevant subject.
The unexpected wondering of Ruth, in the middle of a snowy night, unleashes a family crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank), the daughter, who as soon as she learns of her mother’s incident, travels from California to Chicago in the company of her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), would meet her brother Nikki (Michael Shannon) who is convinced that the only solution is to place their mother in a nursing home. He has even searched for a good one and tries to convince his sister to agree on the idea. Burt, of course, is wholly opposed even to consider that suggestion.
The movie unveils other details in the story in a way that keeps the spectator wondering what is behind each of the characters’ moves. There is a sense of some mutual resentment between the father and his children: it seems that Nikki didn’t live up to Burt’s expectations and the old patriarch doesn’t hide his feelings toward his son for being what he calls a bartender (although indeed Nikki owns the bar too). Bridget, on the other hand, seems to have married a man who –it seems– her father found suitable for her. She would also see an old flame on the occasion of this trip to Chicago. Emma, who is not interested in pursuing her university studies is also at odds with her mother’s expectations, although Bridget didn’t go to college either.
“What They Had”, directed by Elizabeth Chomko, is a well-structured drama with a penetrating look into a family where old values seem to collide with the more practical demands of contemporary life, and the complex expectations that each of the generations brings with them. Recommended for all audiences.
Length: 101 min.