Hilary Swank has been acting since she was a teenager, but it’s only been recently when she’s taken on the role of mother with a degree of regularity. In her latest film, What They Had, she plays mother to a troubled college student, played by Taissa Farmiga. But her real trial comes when Swank’s Bridget returns to her hometown of Chicago after a medical scare regarding her mother (Blythe Danner). Her father (Robert Forster) refuses to even acknowledge that his wife is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, while her brother (a very funny Michael Shannon, in full smarmy jerk mode) already has the paperwork ready to put both his parents in quite nice assisted-living facilities.
What They Had is about a lot of things, most of which are related to a family’s inability to talk about medical care, but bigger-picture dramas like the inability to please our parents no matter how hard we try and how we sometimes lose our voice and dreams by trying to live up to certain familial expectations. These weighty subjects courtesy of actor-turned-first-time-writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, who debuted the film at Sundance in January. The Chicago native based a great deal of the story on her own experiences returning home over the years, and Swank was especially keen on capturing that feeling of being a prodigal offspring, returning to the place that both shaped her and rejected her desires.
/Film spoke to Swank — a two-time, Academy Award-winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby — recently via phone about her connection to the journey her character takes in the movie, what made her trust and value her writer/director’s vision, and how great it is having Michael Shannon as your pretend brother. What They Had is currently in select theaters and will expand in the coming weeks.
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During the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to interview What They Had writer-director Elizabeth Chomko. This is the feature directorial debut for Chomko, who returned to her hometown of Chicago to film it with an all-star cast featuring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, and Taissa Farmiga.
What They Had starts as Bridget (Swank) returns home to Chicago so that both she and her brother (Shannon) can take care of their mother, Ruth (Danner). The problem is that their father Burt (Forster), isn’t ready to move her into a care center devoted to patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
It’s a film that I found myself connecting to on a personal level because my own grandmother suffered from memory loss in her later years after her heart stopped while undergoing surgery. When she passed away while I was in high school, her memory was no longer what it used to be. I even touched on this in my interview with Chomko.
Bleecker Street opens this deeply moving and personal film in limited release today. It will expand in the weeks ahead.
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Alzheimer’s, estranged family, life lessons, Hilary Swank – just add a free space and you’ve gotten a winning card in prestige drama card bingo! And yet, in that incalculably magic way that movies can achieve, What They Had manages to come out to something more than the sum of its imperfect parts. The film, written and directed by newcomer Elizabeth Chomko, often feels like the first feature that it is. But with some help from a crack team of actors as well as her own reservoir of compassion, she steers the film confidently through some turbulent waters.
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What They Had looks like a film designed to make you weep, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon star in the drama about a family struggling to deal with their matriarch’s Alzheimer’s disease. Watch the What They Had trailer below, and then go have yourself a good cry.
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