Film & Television

What They Had, A Tender Film
About a Terrible Disease

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that there are currently 5.7 million Americans living with this terrible disease. By 2050, that number is expected to increase to 14 million. Many, if not most, of us have already been touched by Alzheimer’s.

In my case, I’ve seen its effects on my husband’s grandmother, mother, aunt, and cousin.

First-time director Elizabeth Chomko watched her family go through it with her grandmother, from the challenges of caregiving, to the shifting of roles, to the eventual loss. An actress and playwright, she decided to write a movie both to pay homage to her family and to help them deal with their grief.

Submitting her script in 2014, Chomko was chosen for the Sundance Institute Screenwriter’s Lab. The following year, the script was selected for a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. With Chomko directing, and an impressive cast of Hollywood A-listers, the movie What They Had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

What They Had begins with a crisis. Chicago bar owner Nicky calls his sister Bridget in California because their mother Ruth, suffering from Alzheimer’s, has wandered off in the middle of a snowy night. Bridget flies out with her sullen college-student daughter Emma. Much to everyone’s relief, especially family patriarch Burt, Ruth is found and safe in a local hospital. It turns out she was trying to go home — not to the condo where she lives with Burt, but to her childhood home, a train ride away.

When a young doctor asks the family to step out so she can do a pelvic exam, they learn to their horror (and that of the audience) that many dementia patients who wander out are sexually assaulted. Clearly, Ruth’s condition has reached a point that the family must deal with.

The problem is Burt. Stern, stubborn, and a devout Catholic, he takes his wedding vows literally. He will stay with Ruth and care for her “in sickness and health.” And, he is truly marvelous with her, patient, kind, and loving. He gently corrects when necessary, but goes along with her more often than not. At times, she thinks he’s her boyfriend. At one point, she announces to the family that she’s going to have a baby. At another, she worries that her mother must be wondering where she is. Although her condition is deteriorating, and Bridget and Nicky believe she would be better off in a residential memory care program, Burt is adamant. “She’s my girl. You can’t take my girl away from me.”

Bridget and Nicky may think they know what’s best for their mother, but neither is having much success with their own life. Nicky has been thrown out by his long-time girlfriend because he refuses to commit. Bridget is struggling with her daughter and feels suffocated in a passionless marriage. The siblings have a deep bond, but it doesn’t keep them from bickering and it doesn’t prevent old resentments from surfacing. The inter-family relationships are immediately recognizable and feel completely authentic.

In fact, Chomko’s screenplay rings true at all times. And, it certainly helps that her dialogue is being read by such fine actors.


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