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'What They Had' review: Perfect casting creates on-screen magic in moving Alzheimer's drama

Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Taissa Farmiga star in Elizabeth Chomko's debut feature film.

Blythe Danner, left, and Hilary Swank star in

Blythe Danner, left, and Hilary Swank star in Elizabeth Chomko's "What They Had." Photo Credit: Bleecker Street

'What They Had'

Directed by Elizabeth Chomko

Starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner

Rated R

“What They Had” reaffirms one of the truest platitudes in the business, which is that so much of the battle in making a successful movie can be won in the casting process.

With the right actors in the right roles, a foundation is in place no matter whatever else might go wrong, and first-time feature filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko could not have done better than she has here.

This story of a family struggling with their mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s depends on subtle moments of shared grief and quiet pain, lovingly conveyed against the backdrop of a wintertime Chicago so crisply realized you can practically feel the characters’ breaths. Moments of heightened drama are few and far between.

It takes an ensemble of actors of the utmost caliber — Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster and Taissa Farmiga — to pull this off in a fashion that elevates the material to the point where it compels continued interest because these people genuinely matter, in all their flawed but tangible humanity.

The picture follows Swank’s Bridget Ertz as she comes back to the Midwest from California at the behest of her brother Nicky (Shannon), with the grim intention of persuading dad Burt (Forster) to consent to putting mom Ruth (Danner) in a nursing home.

This is a wrenching task, fraught with the weight of the impossible choice of disappointing your parents or potentially endangering them to satiate their immediate wishes. The screenplay smartly builds out this central conflict into a larger narrative covering a wider swath of this family’s story.

And in their distinct ways, these actors convey every inch of this layered emotional terrain. Swank puts her aptitude for externalizing inner desperation to great use, while Shannon’s wild-card sensibility intriguingly congeals with his regular guy bar owner character. Danner walks a difficult line in maintaining Ruth’s humanity and Forster is so evocative as a proud, wounded Chicago dad that it feels like you’re sitting next to him in a North Side tavern.

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