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NHFF Opening Night Feature: What They Had

The Opening Night Feature following the annual Red Carpet Gala and Reception, which brought out stars like Rae Dawn Chong and John Viener, was the drama What They Had, starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, and Sarah Sutherland. The film is written by Elizabeth Chomko and produced by Albert Berger, Sefton Fincham, Bill Holderman, Tyler Jackson, Keith Kjarval, Alex Saks, and Ron Yerxa.

What They Had, also directed by Chomko, follows a family as they struggle to decide what to do with their mother, Ruth (played by Danner), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. After Ruth leaves the house in the middle of the night during a snowstorm, the family is brought together while searching for her. Bridget (Swank) is asked to come to Chicago from California by her brother Nicky (Shannon) who wants her help in convincing their father, Burt (Forster), to move Ruth to a long-term memory care facility. As Bridget spends more time with her family, tensions grow around the family’s future and the big decision before them. Through the struggle around Ruth’s future, the family members are forced to face the hidden demons haunting the relationships between each other and their own families.

In this emotionally challenging film, which realistically depicts dementia and family dramas, there are many lighthearted scenes provide opportunities to laugh. While Ruth’s disease is debilitating, what can her family do when she flips off a fellow congregate and drinks the holy water during mass, besides laugh? These moments break the tension for Ruth’s family and the audience alike.

What They Had is a critically acclaimed film and it’s easy to see why. There was not a dry eye in the audience following the film and it’s not the ending you expect.


By Ben Bradbury-Koster and Samantha Granville