Drama films are ten a penny these days, you can accidentally stumble onto a couple hundred of these pieces of Netflix. Wading through such masses of content isn’t any good for anyone, so we either turn to the reliable star power of A-listers looking to pack a quick, dramatic punch, or something so left of field that the originality of the narrative swamps the less-than-desirable cast. I opted for the former, in this instance anyway, and I ended up with What They Had, an immediately forgotten drama directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Pooling together an extraordinary cast is no match for poor marketing, and it seems this piece musing on the importance of family ties has been all but lost.
It’s a sad shame to think few people will see this, especially considering how well What They Had tackles its many plot threads. Nicely tied by the end of it all, Chomko presents a messy family lifestyle full of resentment, guilt, and thankfully, love. Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) is at the centre of it all, flying back to her hometown to care for her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), who begins to show worrying signs of Alzheimer’s. She has to contend with Burt (Robert Forster), who appears in denial about his wife’s affliction, and Nicky (Michael Shannon), a less-than supportive brother. This star power provides an exceptional quartet for us to invest our time in. Forster and Swank in particular provide some beautiful scenes of emotional stretch, with tear-jerking moments the two revel in with such ease.
With so much to offer, it surprises me that What They Had is such a great debut outing. There’s consistency and relevance here that has the attitude of a veteran director, someone who knows the field inside and out. Chomko’s direction is stunningly mature for a freshman outing, but it’s that squeaky-clean consistency that allows this piece to grow and expand. There are inevitably a few inconsistencies or broken moments, but Chomko’s voice shines through the muddier parts to bring a debut that rings to the tune of consistent, character-based dramatics.
Chomko’s title is rather literal, reflecting on what this family used to be before shattered and cracked by illness and seething resentments. A lack of understanding misrepresented as a lack of care, a husband in denial of his wife’s ailments, and a daughter trying to hold it all together. What They Had has all the makings of a great American drama, and it succeeds with such spectacular success. Chomko’s debut brings with it such foreboding moments, never quite knowing which way our story will spiral is crucial to the tenacity and excitement of watching a family fall apart. Ghoulish, I know, but it all comes together with relatively happy endings, making me feel better about myself as the credits roll, satisfied by this compelling bit of drama.