Generally speaking, terminal illness is a pretty safe bet if you’re looking to craft a tear-jerking indie drama. It’s appropriately tragic, reaching its tendrils into nearly every aspect of loved ones’ lives, and, most importantly, it’s all too relatable for most of us. However, it requires an impressive amount of legwork to be told in any sort of interesting light. Thankfully, director Elizabeth Chomko, in her feature debut, breaks free from the Sundance-ready dramedy mold with What They Had, delivering a deeply humanist depiction of grief that strives for something more potent than cheap emotional manipulation.
Drowning in a dying marriage and failing to connect with her college-age daughter (Taissa Farmiga), Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) was already feeling powerless when she receives a call from back home. At the insistence of her brother (Michael Shannon), Bridget returns to her hometown in order to convince her father (Robert Forster), who’s dealing with his own health issues, to put her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (the incomparable Blythe Danner) into a care facility. Naturally, he isn’t ready to relinquish his great love and bring the life they built together to a close.
While What They Had flirts with – and even embraces – many of the clichés we’ve come to expect from a dysfunctional family indie drama, there is an awareness to this tale that elevates the film above the serviceable duds we’ve been reluctantly fed in recent years, from This Is Where I Leave You to The Hollars. Our story that begins with all the tell-tale trappings of mawkish sentimentality quickly toys with our expectations to showcase the authentic, unmitigated truths at its core. Perhaps the best indication of credibility is the surprising amount of humor there is to be found in this fateful tale. Chomko takes the ‘anything can be funny’ mantra to heart, crafting a real family who continues to take playful jabs at each other even in the midst of immeasurable tragedy.
Of course, a film of this ilk rises or falls on the sincerity of its key players, and What They Had boasts a slew of acclaim-worthy performances. Even these leads with a seemingly firmly established range display new abilities here. When a stone-faced Danner can’t place her adult children or forgets she’s been married for the past five decades (“He’s my boyfriend”), we don’t doubt her conviction for a moment. She’s never wacky or cartoonish, nor is she every disingenuously melodramatic. With her seasoned precision and Chomko’s poignant direction, Danner, as well as the film around her, finds the tonal sweet spot.
What sets What They Had apart from the pack is its honesty. As viewers, we often have to suspend disbelief and do everything in our power to convince ourselves that what we’re seeing onscreen has even the slightest shred of sincerity. But here, we aren’t asked to turn a blind eye. Even when we see the gears turning and the story follows a familiar formula, we maintain that Chomoko actually believes in the candid, audacious world she’s created, a true marker of a skilled storyteller.