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film review

From left: Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Taissa Farmiga star in Elizabeth Chomko's What They Had.Bleecker Street

  • What They Had
  • Written and directed by: Elizabeth Chomko
  • Starring: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon and Blythe Danner
  • Classification: 14A; 101 minutes


3.5 out of 4 stars

You may feel as if you’ve seen this movie before: Ruth (Blythe Danner) has Alzheimer’s, her husband Burt (Robert Forster) is in denial and their grown children Nick and Bridget (Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank) are at odds. But please, trust me, you haven’t, because What They Had, the debut of writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, is not about an issue.

It’s about characters – about these specific people, what they say and how they relate. The gem-like script was inspired by Chomko’s grandparents’ love story; polished at the Sundance writing program; and won the Academy of Motion Picture’s prestigious Nicholl fellowship.

Pleasurable dialogue has fallen by the wayside in modern movies. There are stylists, such as the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson and Martin McDonaugh, and I love them. But the pleasures of Chomko’s dialogue are subtler, less showy. Yet every time her characters open their mouths, the things they say are both surprising and exactly right. (Shannon pulls off the best delivery, maybe ever, of a one-word line, with his answer to the question, “Are you dead inside?”)

There’s a false note right at the end, when Chomko’s enthusiasms carry her too far. But as her film reminds us, we don’t love people (or movies) in spite of their flaws. We love them because of them.

What They Had opens Oct. 26