Living in the sandwich generation can be tough. Having to care for both your aging parents while simultaneously raising your own children can feel like you are trying to juggle numerous spinning plates in the air. Each one a misstep away from shattering. Worst part of it all is that you rarely get time to focus on your own issues that desperately need addressing.
It is this sense of duty and frustration that makes What They Had tick. Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut film is about a family struggling to adapt to unavoidable change. After her mother Ruth (Blythe Danner), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, goes missing one night, Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns to her family home with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow to help in the search. Although Ruth is eventually found unharmed, Bridget cannot help but find herself stuck in old familial rhythms. Still afraid to completely stand up to her father Burt (Robert Forster) and easily annoyed by her rough around the edges brother Nick (Michael Shannon), Bridget finds herself in the middle of opposing ideas on how to care for Ruth.
In denial of the extent of his wife’s condition, Burt believes their lengthy history makes him is more than capable of looking after Ruth. Nick, on the other hand, believes that a retirement home would ensure that his mother get the level of care that she truly needs. On top of the family conflict around her mother, Bridget must also cope with Emma’s reluctance to go back to school and the growing sense of isolation she feels in her marriage to Eddie (Josh Lucas).
There are no easy answers to the various issues the characters wrestle with, though Emma’s arc could have been fleshed out more, but Chomko ensures we are engaged in the journey. Much of this is a direct result of the strong performances of the ensemble cast. Robert Forster and Blythe Danner give wonderfully delicate turns as a couple where one side is desperate to hold on to a past that the other no longer has recollection of.
Chomko hits many of the emotional beats that one would expect from the subject matter. However, she does a wonderful job of peppering the dialogue with sharp moments of wit. This allows the family dynamics to feel authentic, even in the film’s most familiar moments. What They Had does not break new ground from a narrative standpoint, but its honesty makes the film immensely relatable.