Passionate but flawed, Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature never quite hits the mark
Disguised as an Oscar-contending drama, What They Had is a product of an award hungry generation, showcasing exactly what it believes to be prize-worthy. Passionate but flawed, Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature never quite hits the mark.
Bridget (Hilary Swank) is contacted by her distant brother Nicholas (Michael Shannon) when their Alzheimer’s inflicted mother goes missing. Launching themselves upon their parents Norbert (Robert Forster) and Ruth (Blythe Danner) when Ruth is found, the family dynamic constantly changes, with multiple opinions on what is best for their deteriorating matriarch.
Noticeable from a fairly early stage, there’s a purposeful but forced element to the script that often leaves it lacking in the more humane side of the effect of alzheimer’s. It’s almost as if there’s an understanding of what the disease is on a scientific level, but only incomplete ideas when it comes to the genuine human impact on those affected both by the disease and those around it. The script isn’t noticeably bad, but it’s obviously imperfect, and as a dialogue heavy film it stops the flow of the film from ever taking hold.
Away from the off screen work, Shannon and Swank put in affecting and empathetic performances that overwrites some of the more ingrained problems with What They Had’s narrative. They are complimented gently by Blythe Danner’s excellent performance as alzheimer’s sufferer Ruth, never leaving the disease to take control of the character nor hide it from view. The cast are What They Had’s greatest asset, and that becomes clear fairly early on in the run time.
The cinematography and ideologies are interesting, but never enough, failing to make its attempted subtlety work via the close family narrative. What They Had is a well meaning production, yet often seeming under produced. Certainly not the easiest film to pin particular issues upon, it’s the broader appeal that gives away its weaknesses, and inferiorities when compared to much of the Oscar hungry market.