Is that my baby?
Norbert Eberhardt (Robert Forster) is a loving, generous man who literally swept the woman of his dreams (Blythe Danner‘s Ruth) off her feet to start a decades-long romance that produced two children (Hilary Swank‘s Bridget and Michael Shannon‘s Nick), two grandkids (Taissa Farmiga‘s Emma being one), and unforgettable memories … until they’re forgotten. Ruth has Alzheimer’s and things have devolved to the point where Burt can’t handle doing everything he willingly, admirably, and compassionately does for her. But she’s “his girl” and he takes the whole “until death do us part” to heart. He wants to be her caregiver, link to the past, and guide towards the future. And as sweet as that sounds, it also reveals the domineering hand he’s used to guide his family here today.
This isn’t an indictment, though. He’s a man from an era that placed certain expectations upon him as far as what it meant to be a husband and father: the disapproving scowl, judgmental tone, and tough love through a façade of indifference. Burt wants to be all those aforementioned things for Ruth because he needs to be her protector. He cannot trust strangers who will treat her like a statistic and allow her to forget him completely. Unfortunately, it’s letting her forget him that might actually be the best thing for her. By letting her exist without the mementos and stories of home that do little more than remind her about just how much she’s lost, maybe she could be happy. Burt’s empathy is thus rooted in selfishness.
And you can’t blame him from a purely emotional standpoint. Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko didn’t title her film What They Had without reason. To look at Burt and Ruth’s marriage is to see a union we all aspire towards and why its loss is so difficult. What’s interesting, however, is that their current state of tragic unrest isn’t Chomko’s main focal point. No, their today—namely Ruth walking alone through sub-zero Chicago temperatures in the middle of the night to take the train to her childhood home—is actually a mirror onto their kids’ present troubles. The connection Burt and Ruth had isn’t therefore just a reminder of what they’re missing themselves. It also looms as a template for life Bridget and Nick have yet to experience.
This is their story, one of siblings desperately trying to parent their parents. Nick has been on the ground the last few years fielding emergency phone calls and providing assistance wherever it was needed despite being the black sheep, commitment-phobe of the family who never finished college and now tends bar (his owning said bar not enough to assuage Burt’s disappointment). Bridget is miles away in California living what should be a charmed life that she’s starting to no longer be able to pretend is anything but suffocating. You could say she hops a plane because Nick needs her (to help persuade their father into putting Ruth in a home being that she has power of attorney), but we know she grabs Emma and goes mostly for escape.
By placing them all in the same room, they can do nothing else but confront each other’s shortcomings. The situation is tense due to Ruth’s wellbeing hinging upon what they decide and made even tenser because of what they are discovering about themselves. Why can’t Burt give Nick the love he deserves? Why can’t Bridget stand up for herself to her father and how much of her life has been partially dictated by that inability? And is she doing the same things to Emma that she inherently resents Burt for doing to her? It’s not lost on us that Bridget’s eldest daughter moved away after getting married much like she did. Where Burt and Ruth’s love transcended duty, it’s tough to decide whether anyone else’s does.
Obviously the bond of blood and genetics goes deeper than emotions in many cases, but sometimes you need to pretend the opposite in order to be heard. That’s what this film is at its core: a family screaming at the top of its lungs because any contrary opinion is instantaneously undermined by even louder screaming. So while it’s easy for Nick to tell Bridget that she needs to flip her father off and own her identity for better or worse despite knowing the disapproval that doing so will earn, it’s not the answer (look at his own volatile relationship with Burt). There needs to be more than reaction, more than punishment. And because Chomko gets us all worked up with them, those moments of heartfelt communication prove devastating.
As a first-time writer and director, Chomko must be applauded for never taking the easy way out. Some of the machinations might be convenient (see the ham-fisted inclusion of William Smillie‘s Gerry, a former classmate of Bridget for whom the film bonds to her with a common past of being overweight introduced without any bearing besides the inevitable potential for infidelity), but she refuses to ascribe to any Hollywood notions of clichéd happy endings. That’s not to say What They Had is without one, just that Chomko keenly understands the effectiveness of bittersweet hopefulness. She lets her characters endure the painful reality that is recognizing the present-day fate necessary to work towards a future wherein they can find the love Burt and Ruth shared—bells, whistles, and all.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s collected an outstanding cast to bring those characters to life. Danner is great as the confused matriarch, but her role is more catalyst than emotional center (save a late, heart-wrenching moment of apologetic clarity with Forster). Farmiga suffers much the same fate as a clear puzzle piece for Bridget to acknowledge her own hypocrisy and deep-seeded pain. This is therefore Swank and Shannon’s show as far as letting out the anguish and frustration of adulthood and feeling as though they must reach the ideal set forth by their parents. Her role receives more depth than his where the script is concerned, but that’s intentional since Nick wears his anger on his sleeve while Bridget works up the courage to publically admit her sadness.
And that leaves Forster to somehow make it so his Burt is the emotional center. He’s an immensely flawed man who lets his stubbornness get the best of him—a truth that renders those instances where he admits he’s wrong so devastating. This is a man who speaks and acts from the heart and would do anything for his family. But he’s also one who cannot hide his pleasure towards those that follow the path he wishes for them or his disdain for those who don’t. His children were cut from the same cloth and as such the three are consistently at each other’s proverbial throats. Their tempers flare because they care. They attack because it’s their only avenue towards achieving the attention necessary for their point follow.
 Blythe Danner (left) stars as “Ruth” and Hilary Swank (right) stars as “Bridget” in Elizabeth Chomko’s WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release.
 (l-r.) Michael Shannon stars as “Nick”, Taissa Farmiga as “Emma”, Hilary Swank as “Bridget” and Robert Forster as “Bert” in Elizabeth Chomko’s WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release.
 Hilary Swank (left) stars as “Bridget” and Michael Shannon (right) stars as “Nick” in Elizabeth Chomko’s WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release.