Movie Review: “What They Had”


I remember like it was only this afternoon — which it was — that moment when the well-cast, realistic and sometimes moving mom’s-got-dementia drama, “What They Had,” goes straight off the rails.

It comes after daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) has flown from California with daughter Enma (Taissa Farmiga) to help in-town brother Nick (Michael Shannon) talk Dad (Robert Forster, never better) into putting their “stage six” mother (Blythe Danner) into The Reminiscence Neighborhood, a “remembering home” for people like her.

Well, that’s what Bridget, “Bitty” to her family, was supposed to do. Overwhelmed Nick has been trying to get “I’m not putting MY wife in a nursing home” Dad to buy in.

But Bitty loses her nerve. Not that she doesn’t see the need. Mom was just found riding the El (Chicago) in the middle of a blizzard with little more than night clothes on her back.

But that debate, the meat of the movie, is undone with Bitty’s even-more-personal crisis. She’s bored with her husband (Josh Lucas, who is doing too many of these “also ran” guys these days). So in the middle of all this drama, with unsentimental Nick making all the plans, putting everything in motion only to have Dad veto it, with her own daughter dropping out of college and her mother flipping from lucid to childish in the middle of every scene, Bitty decides to hit on a cute guy from the old neighborhood.


Forgive the fact that actress turned writer-director Elizabeth Chomko is bad at history and math. Dad is driving around in a ’60s GTO with a broken convertible top in the middle of a Chicago winter. No, he’s not driving the Camry.

“I’m 75 years old. F— the Camry!”

So Dad’s 75 and billed as a Korean War vet. He’d have been seven when it started, ten when the shooting war ended.

Get over the melodrama of Emma’s collegiate misery. It was chef-mom’s dream to go, and Emma isn’t having it. Boo hoo.

Pay no attention to the movie’s climax, because there’s a whole third or fourth act (I lost count) that follows it.

And try to ignore how cute Movie Dementia always is when compared to the real thing. Danner is adorably daft, if not quite problematically so.

That little “Lemme start an AFFAIR in the middle of all this” is the boner of all screenplay boners.


Shannon is formidable in his had-enough, let’s be realistic because “We all know how this is going to go” approach to getting mom settled, with plans that put Dad close by.

Swank doesn’t have as much to play, just a lonely wife wishing she and her husband could have the intense connection her parents did, “What They Had.”

Forster is a rigid, fuming force of nature as Bert, a man hellbent on taking their annual trip to Florida, clinging to this woman he’s loved for 60 years (again, math).

We’re all going to deal with this, most of us twice — once as the children making those “power of attorney” decisions, once when we’re the ones being put into a home. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding the lighter moments of this insanely stressful decision and implementation of that decision.

I just drove through a hurricane and a flash flood to move an aged parent into assisted living, so I was inclined to cut “What They Had” a break.

But from the moment Swank, never the best at batting her eyes, has to play alluring to a guy with a crush on her just to feed her ego in the middle of a loud and contentious family debate and crisis, “What They Had” spirals right down the drain — another movie for a more mature audience undone by immaturity.

And bad math.


MPAA Rating: R for language including a brief sexual reference

Cast: Hillary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster

Credits: Written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko. A Bleecker St. release.

Running time: 1:41

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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4 Responses to Movie Review: “What They Had”

  1. Sarah says:

    Based on your review, we saw two different films.
    Sorry that you weren’t able to see what I saw.
    Brilliant film, and even Oscar worthy!

  2. Faust says:

    I suspect the math problem is due to the fact that this is apparently based on the writer/director’s own experiences, and is therefore (in her mind) sent in whatever year those experiences actually took place- presumably about a decade ago. As far as I can recall there is nothing in the film that actually pinpoints it as taking place in 2018, but one does tend to assume that unless cued otherwise. (As far as having loved her for 60 years, we are told that Bert fell in love at first sight when he first met her, before he went away to war, so that could well have been when they were both teenagers: 70 minus 60 equals 15.)

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