“What They Had”


            This one is so real it hurts. 

            Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth (Blythe Danner) have been married all their lives.  They raised two children, Nick (Michael Shannon) and Bridget (Hilary Swank), who are now both middle age-ish. Nick's had a long-time girlfriend, but never married and never had kids.  He's put his life savings into a local bar, where he is the bartender.  He makes a good Manhattan.  He smokes because every time he tries to quit, Life happens.  He sleeps on a cot in the back room.  He cusses a lot, and he has a hair-trigger temper, and he's not afraid to confront anybody with his version of the truth, no matter how blunt.  But he thinks he means well.  He's stayed in Chicago, near Mom and Dad, but he's convinced that Mom is losing her mind, and needs to be placed in a memory care unit, with Dad in an assisted living nearby, but Dad absolutely refuses to even consider it.  So Nick calls Bridget and tells her to please come home from California to help him convince Dad.

            Bridget is that good girl, who always tries to do the right thing.  She keeps herself in shape by running, hard, and tries hard to relate to a younger college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who's mostly angry and sarcastic, but came along on this trip to see her grandparents because Uncle Nick said it was important.  Bridget got married when she was 20, partly to get out of being the girl in the house who did all the housework because Dad and Mom and her big brother all had jobs.  Her husband, Eddie (Josh Lucas) is a good provider, but lately Bridget has been waking up in the middle of the night asking herself, “Is this all there is?”  Her older daughter has already moved out, and Emma is resisting going back to college, saying it's not for her, but Bridget is so determined that she wants Emma to have the opportunities which she did not.  Bridget's work is with her hands in frozen chicken.

            Mom is at that stage of dementia where sometimes she has lucid moments, sometimes she forgets where she is and who the people are around her, and sometimes she just gets up and leaves without telling anybody.  Whenever that happens, Nick gets apoplectic with his inability to get Dad or Bridget to agree with him.  Bridget arranges for something less drastic, changing the locks so they lock from the inside, as well, so at least Mom won't disappear in a snowstorm again.  But Nick sees this as a band-aid that doesn't address the bigger issue.  Dad just says that Ruth is his girl, and marriage is about commitment, there's no bells and whistles, and he's not about to abandon his Ruthie, because nobody can take better care of her than he can.

            There's a lot of existential angst here, because everybody wants something of somebody else, but nobody is getting their way.  So everybody's frustrated, except Mom, who laughs at herself when the phone rings and she picks up a stapler and says “Hello.”  But she drinks the holy water at the Mass, and during the singing of “Joy to the World” gives a one-finger salute to the guy in the pew in front of her when he turns around and asks her to quit talking.  She sometimes calls Burt her “boyfriend,” and sometimes thinks of Bridget as her Mother.  She thinks she needs to be somewhere else, but she's not sure where.  She's not afraid, but she is confused.  And obviously unable to care for herself.

            Is there a resolution?  Yes, but probably not the one you'd expect.  But that's how family dynamics go.  Sometimes it's so real it hurts.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association