Film & Television

What They Had, A Tender Film
About a Terrible Disease

As Bridget (or “Bitty”), Hilary Swank is as strong as ever, and has a powerful personal connection to her role. The two-time Oscar winner recently took an extended break from acting in order to care for her father after a lung transplant. “Something like this was pretty much the perfect movie to step back into because of the subject matter and how close to home it was,” she explains. “Strangely, I really felt more vulnerable in this role than I’ve ever felt. There was nothing I could really hide behind. It was really just a woman trying to find her way, like I am.”

While Bridget has left Chicago to build her own family, Nicky, played by Michael Shannon, has stayed and taken on more of an everyday caretaker role. In doing so, he’s neglected his own love life. “He’s somewhat of a loner,” Shannon says, “But, remains very devoted to taking care of his folks. I don’t think that necessarily makes him virtuous or anything. In a way, I think it’s what he’s comfortable with. It would have been hard for him to venture out into the world the way that Bitty does.” Shannon is gruff and looks like he’s about to get into a fight (or has just returned from one). But, he shows Nicky’s softer side too, whether that’s yearning for the approval of a parent or mourning the loss of one.

At 24, Taissa Farmiga is already a familiar face on television (American Horror Story) as well as in movies (The Bling Ring; The Nun). As Bridget’s daughter Emma, she seems a bit two-dimensional at first, the standard resentful teenager. But, Emma evolves as she becomes more involved with her grandmother. At times, Ruth treats her like a contemporary girlfriend. At other times, Emma seems to understand that there are more important issues than how happy she is or isn’t at college. Like others involved in the film, Farmiga brought her own family history to the project. “My grandma already had Alzheimer’s, so I never knew her before she had this diagnosis. So, I never really knew her true personality.”

Robert Forster, with five decades of work under his belt, is a seasoned pro. And his Burt is struggling to do what he believes is right. In some ways, he’s in denial. “We’re going to Florida,” he announces to his children. “She always gets better when we go to Florida.” In other ways, he very naturally responds to Ruth in a way that keeps her from feeling frightened. Their moments alone together are among the film’s sweetest. In interviews, Forster is effusive about What They Had. “It’s the best character that I’ve ever been privileged to play. You know it right from the page and when I spoke the language … it was very easy and I knew the script was wonderful.” In summing up, he says, “It’s truly personal. It’s honest.”

With the tremendous company of actors I’ve just described, it’s Blythe Danner as Ruth who shines brightest. Chomko has chosen to present a benign portrait of an Alzheimer’s patient. Some with the disease experience mood changes and become particularly angry or frightened. Ruth, on the other hand, acts like a young girl and laughs at her own frequent confusion. In interviews, Danner jokes, “I was hired ’cause I have no memory. And Elizabeth knew that about me.” But, she’s quick to admit that there were challenges in portraying a woman whose memories are not just fading, but going in and out of focus all the time. Some of the most profoundly moving moments of What They Had take place when Ruth is lucid and present. Because these instances are fleeting, they take on superhuman importance, like the prophecy of an oracle.

Chomko and her stellar cast have created a particularly tender film about a terrible disease. Shared memories are the glue that holds families together. When a parent or grandparent is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, roles have to reverse. Caregivers must be cared for, and in addition to the real and costly difficulties of that, those involved must reexamine who they are. To watch a loved one drift away is one of life’s saddest experiences, and one that is becoming more and more common.

“I’m just hoping people can see it and understand that they aren’t alone,” Chomko says. “Maybe it will spark dialogue in someone’s family and better prepare them for this moment and allow them to get through it with more ease and peace. That would be a lovely result for such a private thing that I tried to do.”

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.