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 walking away from her husband, Norbert, (played by Robert Forster) and their Chicago home.

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, (played by Hilary Swank), and asks her to fly in from California to persuade their father to place Ruth 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 husband. The film also contains some flashbacks to help readers see Ruth and Norbert in more complex ways and their marriage as 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 these complex situations. 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. And sometimes there is bit of grace. The film also depicts these more affirming moments, too.

This 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 will find a way to watch in one setting this entire poignant 101 minutes of the film.


Films about Alzheimer's Disease

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