It’s been almost ten years since I lost both grandparents on my maternal side within six months of each other. It was an odd time for me on a couple of fronts, from how their children dealt with each other to meeting family members I had either never met or not seen in decades and even the event itself, but one of the things that sticks out to me the most is the last time I saw them. It was in separate instances, and even though I had heard the stories about their deterioration both physically and mentally, I am not sure any level of preparation could have prepared me for being in those moments. The journey to that point had to be nothing short of painful at times for my mother and her siblings, and perhaps some of those moments have been captured in writer/director Elizabeth Chomko’s “What They Had”.
Blythe Danner plays Ruth, an aging grandmother whose mental health leads her to wander away from her Chicago home on Christmas Eve, causing panic for her husband, Burt (Robert Forster), son Nick (Michael Shannon), and her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank). Each with issues of their own, they gather over the holiday to try and solve each other’s problems while still struggling with the ones within their lives outside of this family.
While this film makes no bones about the fact that it aims to be a tear jerker, it is so much more than that. For those of a certain age, it is a look at not only our past but also a need for us to look at what could be on the horizon. From my own experience, I know there was a lot more to the dynamic of what my mother, her brother, and her sister dealt with than I could see, but I also saw a lot as things progressed. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that some of the things discussed between Bridget, Burt, and Nick were not to the extreme that “What They Had” portrayed, but any time a group of offspring have to discuss late-life care with a stubborn parent, it is nothing short of a struggle. This cast handles Chomko’s material with the highest level of respect while she shoots her story brilliantly. With mostly tight shots of her cast, there is a feeling of intimacy that gave me the feeling of being right there with them, heightening the emotion for me and keeping me focused on the screen.
While I hope that I don’t have to deal with things on the same level that these characters do, “What They Had” does a great job that can function as an ice breaker for families that are preparing to deal with its subject matter. It can also work to open doors that may start the healing process for families that have had it’s subject matter that is overdue and even necessary. I almost want to send copies of this film to my own family so that someday my mom, my aunt, and my uncle can all be together in a way that is not tragic but joyous. I miss my cousins (and as a side note: we all really get along well, and I love them all to the end of the earth) and hope that we can all break bread, laugh, and reminisce of a lifetime spent together.