2018 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: A look at any family in a film must be compelling enough to hold its audience’s attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Chomko‘s tender and delicate “What They Had” packs a considerable amount of emotion and feeling to overcome its flaws. Headlined by a strong cast, with the likes of Robert Forster and Blythe Danner standing out, a portrait of affection and family is at times, very moving in this impressive debut. A low-risk drama that is a solid throw down the middle in a stellar year for cinema.
“What They Had,” tells the story of Bridget (Hilary Swank), who returns home at her brother Nick’s (Michael Shannon) urgent request to deal with their ailing mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) and their father Burt’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together. With her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow, Bridget learns not only about the pillar of love, but regains a sense of herself that she has lost.
Hilary Swank, two-time Academy Award winner of “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” has struggled to find herself since then. As Bridget, she shows a semblance of her former dedicated and enriching acting self. Swank taps into Bridget’s vulnerability and precarious state as a mother, wife, and daughter in a way we haven’t really seen of her at this career juncture Michael Shannon’s Nick is on the verge of unraveling at any moment, as he displays anger and anguish simultaneously in a role that we’ve seen of him before.
Robert Forster’s heartbreaking and nurturing husband is where the film comes alive. The Oscar-nominated actor of “Jackie Brown” showcases all the keenness and virtues we’ve come to respect and admire of him for decades. He highlights the love for his wife, coupled with the disappointment and frustration of his children, never going overboard, and keeping the character well within reach of the viewer.
Blythe Danner’s interpretation of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease is incredibly moving. Chomko’s script hands Danner all the right notes and directions to get and retain an emotional response from the audience. Naturally compared to Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning turn in “Still Alice,” Danner does much of her performing with her mind and body, articulating the feelings of a lost woman brilliantly.
Elizabeth Chomko’s direction is conventional, and a solid starting point for what will hopefully be a long-lasting career. She knows her actors, their strengths, and what they can deliver within their arsenal. For her next effort, it would be great to see her challenge them more, to move outside their comfort zone. Much of what Forster and Danner deliver is well within their abilities, something they’ve both exhibited for decades. Chomko could have inevitably drawn more out of Swank, Shannon, and Taissa Farmiga. The pacing of the picture is not as tight as one would hope. While the narrative builds in parts, sidelines of certain characters don’t give the audience what it wants. In fact, it makes us care less about the events taking place, and misplacing its attempt to gather compassion.
A heart-tugger with a robust sentimental component, “What They Had” tries to play off genre expectations, switching between drama and comedy. Sometimes with success, other times, just missing the mark. The viewer’s allegiances switch often throughout, rooting for a different character to get their way until, by the film’s end, they have all earned our sympathy. That’s where Chomko’s script shines. “What They Had” gets the job done.
“What They Had” screened at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by Bleecker Street, and opens in theaters on Oct. 19.