The Movie Waffler New Release Review - WHAT THEY HAD | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review - WHAT THEY HAD

what they had film review
A daughter struggles to convince her elderly father to check her Alzheimer's-suffering mother into a retirement home.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Elizabeth Chomko

Starring: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas

what they had film poster





With its mental illness adjacent plot, What They Had is the sort of film that might be dismissed as a 'Disease of the Week' TV movie that has somehow made its way into cinemas. With its televisual aesthetic and refusal to grapple with its subject in any depth, it's easy to sneer at, but thanks to a strong ensemble cast, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko's family drama makes for a pleasant watch. The question is, should it be?

what they had film review


Robert Forster and Blythe Danner play Norbert and Ruth Everhardt, an aging MidWestern couple whose struggles with the latter's Alzheimer's condition are becoming increasingly difficult. When Norbert wakes one morning to find his wife has disappeared in the midst of a blizzard, he calls his long-suffering, local-based son Nicky (Michael Shannon), who in turn calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) in a desperate plea for help.




Living across the country in California has sheltered Bridget from the harsh realities of her mother's mental health. Arriving in the MidWest with her moody teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in two, Bridget gets a first hand glimpse at the struggles her family have been undergoing in her absence. Nicky has been trying to convince his father to sign Ruth into a retirement home, where she can be looked after by professionals, but Norbert stubbornly refuses. Can Bridget convince him, if she's even convinced it's the right course of action herself?

what they had film review


In recent years, Swank has become very selective in her roles, so much so that you would be forgiven for believing she had retired from acting. As talented an actress as Swank is, I'm not sure she was the best choice for a role which mostly plays to her dramatic strengths but occasionally veers into the sort of awkwardly comic moments that a Sandra Bullock might have been better suited to. A comedic interlude in which Bridget dons her mother's nicest blouse in a cringe-worthy attempt to seduce an old classmate feels like it belongs in a very different movie, but elsewhere Swank reminds us just how watchable she can be. The same goes for Shannon, and the movie is at its most engaging when the two siblings are shooting the breeze together, catching up and playing the blame game at the same time.




So engaging are Forster, Swank and Shannon that it's easy to overlook the elephant in the room. Despite the movie's plot revolving around the mental state of Danner's Ruth, she's sidelined in favour of her family, and What They Had is too often a movie in which people discuss the fate of someone in the next room. It's all a bit 'Does she take sugar?', failing to give Ruth any agency until a late moment where she suddenly becomes improbably cognitive so she can spell out the film's theme in a short saccharine speech.

what they had film review


At one point Ruth walks in on her family as they are embroiled in a heated argument over what's best for her. She's shuffled out of the room while Chomko's camera remains with her bickering family members. A more sensitive drama would have followed Ruth out of the room, perhaps after having entered said room with Ruth in the first place. Had Chomko given the key character in her drama a greater role, rather than dismissing her as simply some sort of unwanted nuisance, What They Had would be an easier recommend. As it is, it's a perfectly pleasing time-passer, but one that does little to further onscreen representations of mental illness.

What They Had is in UK/ROI cinemas March 1st.


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