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TIFF Review: What They Had

Sometimes, later in a film festival, once the bright lights of the big premieres dim, you can come across a little gem that you never saw coming.  Last year for me it was The Wife, which is now garnering star Glenn Close some late, but well deserved Oscar buzz.  This year, What They Had may just be that movie, just visible on my radar but exceeding expectations.

The story begins as we see an elderly woman, whom we later are introduced to as Ruth (Blythe Danner), putting on her stockings and shoes, adorning her winter coat and walking into the midst of a blizzard in the middle of the night.  Her husband Burt (Robert Forster) awakens in a panic, calling his son Nick (Michael Shannon).  Nick, in turn, calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) who hops on a plane with her own daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to help search for her.  With three generations meeting under one roof, the family struggles to decide what is best for Ruth, who is in the throes of late-stage dementia, the ramifications of which create tension between them all.

Making her directorial debut, Elizabeth Chomko, who also wrote the script, clearly has a keen sense of observing family dynamic.  Everything about this film feels deeply personal, from the humour they have to use when Ruth makes an erroneous remark, to the pain Burt feels trying to desperately hold on to the woman he has loved for decades.  This ensemble cast performs so well together that it truly feels like family.  Blythe Danner is touchingly sensitive in her portrayal of Ruth, and Michael Shannon actually gets to show some of his more humorous chops in a role that takes him away from his typical fare.  There isn’t a bad showing among them.

In the film, Robert Forster’s character repeatedly states, “Love is a commitment,” and it seems true that Chomko seemed dedicated to a heartbreakingly honest look at how dementia can affect not only the victim, but also their loved ones.  Many will find a lot to relate to in this story, and it opens up good questions not only practically for how prepared we are for the inevitable ageing of our parents, but also how we live our every day lives.  Our memories are precious, and their loss costly, in more ways than one.

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