What They Had is a wonderful film. There’s no use burying the lede on Chicagoan Elizabeth Chomko’s writing and directing debut. The script won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 2015, and it shows. From moment one, it’s obvious we’re in for a polished, character-driven story, not an easy task for a first independent feature. Here, the combination of Chomko’s pitch perfect dialogue and perhaps Hilary’s Swank’s best performance of her career (and yes, I remember Boys Don’t Cry) creates one of the most personal, moving films of 2018.
Swank is Bridget, a woman who’s long since left her family in Chicago behind for sunny, successful California. But all is not perfect in the land of palm trees and plastic surgery, and she’s struggling in her marriage, as a mother and in figuring out just who she is as her parents age and she shifts into middle age. When her mother Ruth (a magnificent Blythe Danner) disappears one cold winter night, her dementia getting the better of her and sending her off on an ill-timed walk, Bridget and her teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) head back to the Midwest so the family can sort out just how to handle Ruth’s progressive decline.
Ruth’s doting husband Burt (Robert Forster) is insistent that he can continue to care for her, but Bridget and her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) are intent on convincing their father to send her to a live-in care facility where she can get the attention she needs, around the clock. Nick’s more than ready to ship her off; as the only one who stayed in town to deal with the health issues and his father’s seemingly constant disappointment, he’s grown bitter and distant, more than happy to make sure Bridget knows exactly how he feels.
A lesser film would’ve seen this confluence of personalities and circumstances lose all definition, muddled into a mess of scenes and interactions that never really add up to much. Thankfully, What They Had is not that film. Chomko defines her characters so distinctly, each actor finds more than enough to work with as they bring their respective lines to life. Scenes around the dinner table; a heated exchange in the stairwell; brief flashbacks to Bridget’s life in California (featuring a blink-and-you-miss-him Josh Lucas); they’re all as riveting as a scene from Mamet or Letts, so masterfully built to do excatly what they need to do: show us who these people are while simultaneously moving the story along. Not a word is wasted, not a single moment is an afterthought.
It’s possible that some of my affinity for the film comes from the fact that I grew up just around the corner from where Chomko sets her story. I recognize so much in the fiercely loyal if slightly dysfunctional family dynamic on screen, from the way they step up for each other in the toughest times even as they know exactly how to push each other’s buttons to the version of grace they say before a meal (it’s exactly the one my Catholic grandmother still says to this day) and the high school Bridget mentions that Nick attended (it’s the one my dad attended, too). All that makes the film that much more meaningful to me, sure.
But make no mistake: the appeal of What They Had is universal. As Bridget struggles in nearly every aspect of her life—she can’t get through to Emma to save her life; she’s losing her mother right before her eyes; she’s torn between what her dad wants and what her brother needs; her husband is miles away, literally and figuratively—Swank finds a beautiful balance in the character’s spiraling desperation to get it all figured out. It’s a wise move, aligning her exquisitely with Shannon’s biting hostility (which itself is a mask over Nick’s own deep emotional wounds), delivered as only an actor of his caliber could manage. Great actors make it possible for everyone around them to rise to their level, and Chomko’s ensemble is no exception; Danner, Forster and Farmiga, each already strong performers in their own right, meet Shannon and Swank where they are rather than the other way around.
When I saw What They Had at TIFF last month, it was a revelation on multiple levels, not the least of which is Swank’s performance. But also, in a program riddled with stories about boys and men (White Boy Rick, First Man, Ben is Back, Boy Erased, Beautiful Boy…on and on), the film is like throwing a window open in a stuffy, dusty attic, one we’ve been stuck in for way too long. Chomko may start with a predictable premise (when her mother falls ill…), but she expertly develops it into a deeply personal exploration of a woman at a crossroads; there’s so much familiar in Bridget’s battles, both internal and external, that seeing her journey on screen feels both revolutionary and inevitable. May it only be the beginning of stories like these—and of Chomko’s promising filmmaking career.