Film Review: ‘What They Had’

Though its causes remain shrouded in mystery, Alzheimer’s Disease is unmistakably on the rise, and will become an ever-growing public issue as senior populations and longevity itself each continue to expand. We’re still at an early stage in terms of its dramatization, however — apart from  “Away From Her” and “Still Alice,” there haven’t been that many notable screen depictions of Alzheimer’s, or of progressive dementia in general.

Actor-playwright Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature “What They Had” is a particularly welcome addition to that so-far slim canon, since it finds ways to bring considerable humor to a grim subject, without trivializing it. This satisfying drama provides excellent roles for a fine cast, particularly Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank and Robert Forster. Highlighting the awards-worthiness of those turns will probably beat the best path to commercial success, particularly in theatrical release.

Getting up in the middle of the night, Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes for a walk — which might not be a significant event if she didn’t venture out into a Greater Chicago winter wearing little more than a nightgown. By the time hubby Burt (Forster) notices her absence, she’s nowhere to be found. Once she’s finally been located and taken to an area hospital, miraculously unharmed, the crisis has seen daughter Bridget (Swank) fly in from California with her own offspring Emma (Taissa Farmiga), summoned by brother Nick (Michael Shannon).

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