'What They Had' film review: Perfect cast highlights this moving tearjerker
Boy it's great to see Hilary Swank and Robert Forster in career-defining roles worthy of their extraordinary talents. The poignant family drama "What They Had" (opening in theaters nationwide Nov. 2) is absolutely one of the season's cinematic gems.
In short: Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to help her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) convince their stubborn father Burt (Robert Forster) to place their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) into a nursing home.
"Family drama" is practically its own drama - and sadly it's usually characterized by schmaltzy melodrama and predictably punctuated by obligatory scenes of family members screaming at each other. And this is exactly why "What They Had" is refreshing - it squarely focuses on the primary conflict and doesn't get distracted by the typical "family drama" trappings.
Every moment and story beat ties directly back to the matriarch's rapid deterioration into dementia. This straightforward dilemma pits three characters against each other, and they all want the same thing: what's best for Ruth. The brilliance of "What They Had" is it empathizes utterly with each character. Nick desperately wants to put Ruth into a home, Nick refuses that idea outright and Bridget is stuck somewhere in the middle - and the story balances all three characters and their agendas on equal footing. Nick's increasing frustration is equal to Burt's sweet devotion to Ruth.
"What We Had" resonates so powerfully because its themes and elements are so painfully relateable. Watching once vitality-filled parents become old people is hard for any adult child - and equally painful for any elderly person to watch their loved one slip away into dementia. The film finds heart, humor, grace, romance and heartache in what is essentially a love story and a story about what people are willing to do for their loved ones.
Swank, Shannon, Forster and Danner feel like a family that has endured its share of good years and bad years. Swank and Shannon bicker like a pair of siblings and Forster is simultaneously gruff and loving. Danner's performance is the heart of the film and her characterization is heart-rending - especially in the moments of Ruth's clarity and confusion. She has fleeting awareness of her condition, and other moments when Ruth has no idea who her husband or children are. Danner's touching turn always grounds Ruth as a woman afflicted by a disease - but there's still a devoted wife and mother inside her.
The only blemish on this otherwise impeccable film is the rather superfluous b-plot involving Bridget's daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Aside from giving Swank more familial strife materiel to work with, Emma never feels like a necessary character - she's always just kind of there - what worse, she's not missed when she's off-screen. Her story is tangential to the primary plot, and Emma's arch only serves to flesh out Bridget's character.
Final verdict: A perfectly cast ensemble and a beautifully humane story makes this bittersweet, funny and heartbreaking tearjerker one of the can't miss films of 2018.
"What They Had" opens in theaters nationwide Nov.2. This family drama has a running time of 101 minutes and is rated R for language including a brief sexual reference.