Friday, 5 October 2018

What They Had (2018 EIFF 5)

Family dramas set at Christmas rarely excel, but Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had is an exception, coming in among my top five films at the 2018 EIFF. It will be released later this month.

Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, who flies back home to Chicago (from California) to help her brother, Nicky (Michael Shannon), after her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), wanders out into the snow late on Christmas Eve, wearing only her nightgown. Ruth has Alzheimer’s and Nicky is convinced she should be in a nursing home, but his father, Burt (Robert Forster), is in denial about the severity of Ruth’s condition and isn’t ready to have his wife move out. Nicky wants Bridget to help him convince Burt that it’s necessary, but Bridget isn’t sure it’s the only way forward.

At the core of What They Had is a sense that all of the characters are as lost as Ruth when it comes to understanding their relationships with each other (and, in the case of Bridget and Nicky, with the people in their own lives). Bridget is the focus of our attention and we learn that part of her reluctance to push her father is a history of doing whatever her father tells her (including getting married to a man she may not have loved). Nicky, on the other hand, is as stubborn as his father and has had a very different kind of relationship with Burt, which doesn’t help him in this situation. Bridget is also distracted by misgivings about her marriage and about her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who has lied about her college registration. This short Christmas visit is so full of conflict and mixed emotions for the whole family that Christmas itself is almost forgotten.

What They Had is a quiet unsentimental drama, with moments of wry humour, that feels real and gives us characters with lots of depth, all of whom have our sympathy. It’s a great screenplay and solid direction - hard to believe this is Chomko’s first film. The acting is outstanding by all concerned and the cinematography and score are exactly right. If the film has a flaw it’s that it feels a little too neat in its resolutions, though there are surprises.

I am giving What They Had somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

1 comment:

  1. Vic, trying to get ahold of you as a researcher from St. Louis, writing on Jeff Vander Lou and Bethesda Mennonite Church. I have records indicating you were present, probably working via MDS or as a contractor. Cecil Miller seems to remember you, so does Hubert Schwartzentruber, two big sources for my manuscript. Hoping to talk to you about your time in St. Louis, my email is