What They Had

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
What They Had Movie Poster Image
Messy, loving family deals with Alzheimer's in mature drama.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 101 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Families may argue and hurt each other, but they come together in the end. Addresses difficult discussion of what to do with aging parents who can't take care of themselves anymore. Doesn't offer easy answers, but represents many sides of argument.

Positive Role Models & Representations

These are all realistic, well-intentioned, but flawed people; they have troubles and worries and make mistakes, but they're basically loving and caring, looking out for one another.

Violence

Mention of women being sexually assaulted. Arguing.

Sex

A married woman flirts with another man. She tries to seduce him but is interrupted. An adult man says his Alzheimer's-suffering mother "hit on me."

Language

Strong language includes uses of "f--k," "bulls--t," "s--t," "a--hole," "ass," "goddamn," "d--k," "hell," "oh my God," "damn," "for Christ's sake." Middle-finger gesture.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some social/casual drinking: cocktails and whiskey. One character owns a bar. Occasional cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What They Had is a poignant drama about a family that's dealing with the very difficult issue of Alzheimer's; it's more focused on characters and life than it is on sickness and misery. It's a beautifully acted, big-hearted, messy hug of a movie for mature viewers. Language is quite strong, with multiple uses of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," and more -- sometimes shouted in anger during arguments. A married woman tries to seduce another man but is interrupted. There's some sex-related talk and a mention of possible sexual assault. Characters often drink socially/casually (one of them owns a bar), and some cigarette smoking is seen. Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, and Robert Forster co-star.

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What's the story?

In WHAT THEY HAD, Ruth (Blythe Danner), who has Alzheimer's, wanders out into a New York snowstorm. Ruth's daughter, Bridget (Hilary Swank), is called and arrives soon after with her own college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Bridget's father, Burt (Robert Forster), tells her everything is fine, but her brother, Nicky (Michael Shannon), insists that it isn't. Ruth's condition has been getting worse, and Nicky has been dealing with everything while still trying to run a bar and salvage his suffering relationship. Meanwhile, Bridget has been largely absent, and Burt is in denial. Over the course of a few days at Christmastime, all of the family members reassess their priorities and relationships, while Bridget wrestles with the fact that her own marriage has grown stale.

Is it any good?

This big-hearted drama, a feature writing and directing debut by Elizabeth Chomko, is impeccably acted, with vivid, intricate relationships played out on a deceptively feisty, unruly canvas. In What They Had, Chomko, who was previously an actress and playwright, brings together five of the very best actors around, who proceed to form a tangled, passionate family unit so strong that it feels like their lives together started before the movie began. Each character is viewed as if from the inside, with his or her own logical, reasonable hopes, wants, and desires.

As a result, they clash with each other in a totally organic way. Even Farmiga's bratty Emma seems dead-on. Nothing feels forced or driven by the plot; it's far from a soap opera. Perhaps better still, Chomko deals with the subject of Alzheimer's with a light touch. This isn't a disease-of-the-week movie that heavily, miserably focuses on the malady itself rather than on the characters; it's the exact opposite. This is about how characters are affected by what's going on, and every scene springs to life. While it's still not an easy subject to digest, What They Had is ultimately a great big messy hug of a movie.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the family dynamics in What They Had. Do they seem realistic? Why or why not?

  • How are drinking and smoking depicted? Are they glamorized? Are there consequences? Why does that matter?

  • What is Alzheimer's? Have you ever dealt with Alzheimer's in real life? How does the movie compare? How does it compare to other movies about Alzheimer's?

Movie details

For kids who love dramas

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