Movie #32 2021: What They Had (2018)

Here’s the truth: it took me two attempts to watch this film. Find out why by reading the whole review.

What They Had is the first directorial feature film by Elizabeth Chomko. Centring on one family, it focuses on how knowing someone with Alzheimer’s Disease can affect your life. When their mother (Blythe Danner) one day wanders out into the snowy night whilst her husband sleeps, her children are called to return home in order to help take care of her. The chief argument between the family members revolves around whether or not their elderly father should look after their mother, or whether she should go into an assisted living care home.

Firstly, wow. This movie is really, really upsetting. As you would probably expect when reading such a synopsis.

Here’s why it took me two attempts to finish it: I began What They Had being extremely disinterested, and plainly, I found it way too boring to get through. I tuned out at the 10 minute mark, and at 25 minutes, I gave up, put the film in a box and didn’t think about it for the rest of the day. However, I am no coward. If I start something, I’ll finish it, even if I can’t imagine connecting with the movie at all.

So, the next day, I took a second crack at something I imagined would be terribly written and performed after basing my opinions only on it’s few opening sequences. Thankfully, 30 minutes in, the movie’s heart seemed to swell and the characters managed to pull me in. Hurrah! I was wrong, and I have no problem admitting that.

The story itself has a sense of honesty and poignance to it, embracing themes of illness, family, and death. This is not an easy watch by any means, but it’s an important narrative that probably affects more families than most realise. It is often harrowing, yet there are small moments of humour and love here and there that alleviate any feeling that the film is becoming too heavy to handle. I thought the scriptwriting would be terrible, but again, I was wrong.

Technically, this movie is nothing special. Besides the soundtrack being effectively emotion enhancing, the camerawork and framing is ultimately just average. However, the cast present some finely detailed character studies that will make you really root for them as a family. Hilary SwankMichael Shannon and Taissa Farmiga are brilliant here, but it’s Blythe Danner who will really make your heart ache. The late Robert Forster will hit you right in the chest too as the older, more experienced cast members completely steal the spotlight.

Overall, this is a really important snapshot of how a family may cope in such a distressing scenario. Though there are some truly heartfelt performances, its impossible to describe it as “enjoyable” because it’s so uncomfortable to witness, but the characters feel very relatable and realistic when all is said and done.

A decent achievement by first time director Elizabeth Chomko; someone I look forward to seeing more from.

What They Had is available to stream on Netflix in the UK.

TQR Category Ratings:

Costume & Set Design: 
Overall Rating: ½

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