What They Had, the new feature from first-time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko, captures a family in a moment of crisis. Ruth (Bylthe Danner) has wandered away from her home in the middle of winter (a mild yet still blustery and snowy Chicago night), leading her husband Burt (Robert Forster) and son Nick (Michael Shannon) on a frantic search. Amidst the desperation, Nick reaches out to his younger sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) in Los Angeles, demanding that she come home to help him convince their father that it is time to put their mother in a home for her own protection. Burt, in absolute denial, argues that he’s more than capable of taking care of Ruth.
Nick is the only one willing to state the obvious – that Ruth has Alzheimer’s and the situation is worsening. What we come to recognize too is that Bridget, the younger of the siblings, has more negotiating influence over the well-being of their parents and control over the decision-making, but she’s compromised, due to her attempts to accommodate all sides rather than making the tough call. She’s done so her entire life, which is why Bridget finds herself at odds with her own daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), an unhappy college student seeking to break free of the parental leash that binds her and questioning her relationship with her hardworking husband (Josh Lucas) because their marriage doesn’t look like that of her parents.
Despite the higher-octane cast driving the narrative, Chomko’s working on a far more intimate scale here, which made the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the film a fine and necessary complement to my Toronto International Film Festival viewing experience. The first part of our conversation focused on the conception of the story and the chance Chomko had, through a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship, to workshop the project into shape without sacrificing what she had.
Of course, I was taking in the film – and engaging in this exchange with Chomko – against the backdrop of an industry caught up in an internal bit of ongoing soul-searching over its handling of the topic of diversity. People of color, women, and the LGBTQ community have challenged Hollywood at all levels to reflect upon the images being presented and ascertain whether they capture the true face of audiences and our society.
I came to TIFF18 not only as a film critic, but also as a first-time festival programmer/curator attempting to reframe the conversation on diversity by including the perspectives of people with disabilities. Chomko willingly followed me down this less-trod path during the second half of our talk.
What They Had opens in the Cincinnati/Dayton markets on November 2nd.