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story.lead_photo.caption Bridget (Hilary Swank), her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), and her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), spend a holiday season together in Elizabeth Chomko’s alternately harrowing and heart-warming family drama What They Had.

A friend of mine is making his first movie.

He decided to do a low-budget genre film because, well, it's cheap and because he'll have a better chance of finding some kind of distribution after it's completed. There's a big market for horror movies , with lots of platforms that need content.

What They Had

82 Cast: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie

Director: Elizabeth Chomko

Rating: R, for language including a brief sexual reference

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

What's most interesting is that he fully expects the movie he winds up with to not be the movie he hopes he'll wind up with. He frankly expects the finished project to be, if not bad, at least deeply flawed. Because he and his collaborators are just learning how to make movies. This is their practice movie. They have another script they think is really good that they want to make after they get this movie out of the way. They'll make a lot of mistakes on this one. So maybe they'll actually make a good film of the good script they've got.

Elizabeth Chomko's feature debut What They Had is not exactly a practice movie. It's got very good things going for it, including a remarkable cast. It has moments that push back against easy sentimental reaction. It's getting really good reviews -- which surprises me given my own reaction to the film, but not that much.

It's just not as good as it could have been.

Which is something one could say about anything, including this review, which is meant to be gentle and encouraging while still cognizant of some problems with Chomko's script. The ending felt wrong. There was a odd problem with time -- one that would have been easily fixable with another pass through the script. But most of all, the story -- which is at least partially autobiographic -- feels more trite than other treatments of similar material, what we might call domestic Alzheimer's dramas.

What They Had pales beside Sarah Polley's 2006 movie Away From Her, Polley's feature debut. I didn't find it as effective as 2014's Still Alice. Tamara Jenkins' scarifying The Savages (2007) covers much the same ground. It's no disgrace to be just off the podium compared to these films, which set a high bar, but there you go. What They Had is far more predictable. The beats just fall into place.

Still, it is good to see Blythe Danner and Robert Forster. She, Ruth, is the ailing one, leaving her bed in the middle of the night to wander through Chicago in the snow. He, Bert, is her stubborn husband, insistent on keeping her at home despite her inevitable slipping away.

Nick (Michael Shannon) is the realist -- Bert can't handle this any more, Ruth needs around-the-clock care that can only be provided by professionals in a secure environment. So Nick calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) in California. She rushes to Chicago with her college-age daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to confront the old man. Or maybe not.

Bridget's own house is not entirely in order -- we see her angst on her runs. All is not right with her husband, with her daughter. Nick has issues too -- his devotion to his career (he owns a bar) has cost him his long time girlfriend. His father seems uninterested in his life. His mother hits on him. To Shannon's credit, he's able let us see the pain beneath his gruff exterior.

In close quarters over Christmas, various members of the family rub against one another, airing grievances and confessing secrets. Bridget has an awkward (and cruel) encounter with a handyman who had a crush on her in their school days; Nick shows off his prize-winning Manhattan. It's all filmed in a straightforward, handsome style that emphasizes the curious tastefulness of the working-class milieu. I thought Bert had to be a college professor judging from the class signifiers around his house -- nope, he's stolidly blue collar Catholic in his attitudes.

By no means exploitative or crass, What They Had feels just a little too safe, a little too pat. No doubt Chomko will do better work. I hope she's not quite satisfied with this one.

Burt (Robert Forster) is Ruth’s (Blythe Danner) doting, loving — and long-suffering — husband in Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had.

MovieStyle on 12/07/2018

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