Friday, August 30, 2019

What They Had: Film Review

21 January 2018.
It took me two months to watch this What They Had (2018).

The film was neither too long nor too boring.

Quite the contrary.

It was very engaging, but it was also challenging.

Written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko, What They Had conveys the complexities a family faces when someone is living with dementia, the most prevalent form being Alzheimer's Disease.

This 2018 film (which in the US primarily showed at film festivals, such as Sundance) focuses on one family's response to Ruth, played by Blythe Danner.

Ruth is the matriarch and former nurse whose memory problems lead to her wandering--during a snow storm--from her Chicago home, which she shares with her husband, Norbert (played by Robert Forster). 

This is frightening enough when people wander in nice weather. However, Ruth has disappeared into the city during a snow storm.

This becomes a catalyst for the son, Nick, played by Michael Shannon, to put in motion a solution for his parents' age-related challenges. Nick does what he thinks is the most obvious, practical, and objective response to advanced age: place mother in an assisted living center.

Their father, Norbert, disagrees--vehemently.

Nick is the local child. He recently opened his own bar, and the many acts of care have been making it difficult for him to focus on work. Consequently, Nick calls his sister, Bridget aka "Bitty," (played by Hilary Swank), and asks her to fly in from California. Nick has already decided on a course of action and informs his sister that she must persuade their father to place their mother into "a home."

What follows is a series of tense conversations between and among all the family members, with additional complications coming into focus with Bridget's daughter and her husband. As the film unfolds, the conflict centers less on the mother's failing health and more on Bridget examining her own marriage in contrast to her parents--hence the film's title.

With the films growing focus on the nature of the older couple's marriage, the film also contains some flashbacks to help readers see Ruth and Norbert in more complex ways. Clearly, their marriage constitutes more than Norbert serving as Ruth's care partner.

Because I have parents and step-parents making difficult choices about caregiving, and because I am the out-of-town sibling, I could relate to the tense situations and difficult conversations. The film also brought to the surface intense and conflicting emotions--so much so that I had to stop watching.

I wasn't crying; I was writhing in pain.

I had compassion for every family member's point of view: Norbert wanting to care for his wife at home. Nick wanting to focus on achieving his dream of being a bar owner. Bridget asking herself if she is a good daughter, sister, spouse, and mother. Ruth trying her best to manage.

By the end of the film, I was bawling my eyes out. Alzheimer's disease often stresses family members to a breaking point, bringing out old hurts and complicating existing challenges.

The learning curve is very steep, so there is little time to figure out how to adequately respond, especially when each adult child and each parent have different communication styles, different ways for managing conflict, different personal challenges, and different visions for how to address the increase need for help with ADLs and IADLs.

By the time everyone compromises on a response, the needs often shift--sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. This film depicts this very well.

And even though people can be angry, sad, and tense with each other, they can also have moments of tenderness. Some scenes are laugh-out-loud funny. And sometimes individual family members experience a bit of grace. When I decided to take a break from the film, I wasn't expecting to see these more affirming moments. But they often exist for families going through similar challenges.

What They Had may be helpful for people to watch before their family has to address changes to memory and mobility. Viewers might find it instructive to view this fictional (but realistic) family addressing similar issues.

And maybe others reading this review can now take courage and watch in one setting this entire poignant film.


Films about Alzheimer's Disease

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