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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

What They Had movie review: family ties and lies

What They Had green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Simultaneously sharp and tender portrait of longstanding family squabbles and resentments finally coming to a head. Achingly affecting performances and poignant details ground it in melancholy authenticity.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut film is a simultaneously sharp and tender portrait of longstanding, interconnected family squabbles and hidden resentments that finally come to a head with a near-tragedy. Bridget (Hilary Swank: Logan Lucky) rushes home to Chicago when her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner: Tumbledown), wanders off one snowy night: Mom’s in the late-middle stages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes coherent, more often confused and lost in the past. She turns up hours later, just fine, but this is the last straw for Bridget’s desperate brother, Nick (Michael Shannon: 12 Strong), who’s been holding down the familial fort while their father, Bert (Robert Forster: The American Side), refuses to acknowledge that it’s time for Ruth to move to a nursing home where she can get the support she needs. Bridget has power-of-attorney, but will she use it to override her father’s wishes?

TFW you love your dad but also he’s driving you crazy.

TFW you love your dad but also he’s driving you crazy.

Achingly affecting performances all around — particularly Danner’s, well, charming blitheness and Shannon’s seething, grieving anger — and oh-so-many poignant details ground What They Had in melancholy authenticity. From the secrets that siblings tell each other but keep from their parents to the ironies of dementia — when asked to confirm who Bert is, Ruth replies, “He’s my boyfriend!” — Chomko’s observant eye is as sympathetic as it is blunt. (She based her script on real life, on the story of her grandparents.) The bitter humor, too, rings true, that whistling past the graveyard that comes with facing mortality, particularly that of one’s parents.

But this is mostly the tale of Bridget’s confrontation with the fact that her marriage — to Eddie (Josh Lucas: Stolen), whom she married mostly just to please her parents — is lacking in the devotion and the romance that her parents obviously still enjoy, even in Ruth’s diminished state. The film’s title, What They Had, isn’t only an elegy for Bert and Ruth but a smack to Bridget, an admonition for her to do something to fix her own life, too. If she’s brave enough. This is yet another installment in the burgeoning cinematic subgenre of Women Who Are Done Putting Everyone Else First, and I am here for it.


What They Had is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for November 2nd. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other releases.


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green light 3.5 stars

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What They Had (2018) | directed by Elizabeth Chomko
US/Can release: Oct 19 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 01 2019

MPAA: rated R for language including a brief sexual reference
BBFC: not yet rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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