“What do you mean she’s gone?”
In What They Had, Nick (Michael Shannon) opens with the phone call that every adult dreads: that their mother (Blythe Danner), Ruth’s dementia has caused her to wander into the night. As a result, Nick calls his sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank) and asks her to come home in an effort to convince their father Burt (Robert Forster) to begin the process of moving them into a proper senior’s facility. Struggling to hold on to his way of life, Burt is resistant, arguing that he is the best care for his wife in her time of need. As a result, Nick and Bridget must struggle to decide what’s best for their parents in their advanced age.
Using Bridget as the film’s emotional balance, the film accurately portrays the heartbreak and struggle that comes with having to care for one’s parents. In fact, one of the best aspects of the film is the manner in which it both affirms and challenges the voice of the elderly within the film. In doing so, the film manages to both honour the power of Burt and Ruth’s story while, at the same time, affirming Nick’s claim that they are unable to continue as they have.
The core of the film lies its exploration into the power of love, especially within the context of Burt and Ruth’s relationship. Although she increasingly struggles with the details of her life, his relentless commitment to her translates into the one thing that she remembers most easily. His love for her becomes redemptive, providing her the stability that she so badly needs. (Of course, therein also lies the problem, as he also believes he is the only one capable of caring for her properly.)
What They Had speaks to more than one family’s struggle to decide on their parents’ ability to live on their own. It’s a film about what it means to truly love someone else, through every stage of life. Featuring powerful performances by its cast, it’s a reminder of the conflict between love’s ‘butterflies’ and long-term commitment, even when your partner struggles to remember you.