Footprints in the snow. I just can't shake the image. In the opening moments of What They Had, an achingly wonderful new film starring Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon and Robert Forster, we see Ruth (Danner) matter-of-factly get out of bed, grab a sweater and handbag, and step outside into a Chicago snowstorm. Ruth's silhouette fades as we see her walking away from us, but first-time director Elizabeth Chomko chooses instead to tighten her focus on Ruth's snowy footprints. Chomko doesn't overplay the metaphor, only holding the lens on the footprints for a second or two, but it's impossible to dismiss the imagery.
In July 2011, I sat down with Dr. Troy Rohn, scholar and researcher and Boise State, to talk about what he called "the epidemic of our times"—Alzheimer's. At the time, Rohn told me that there were enough Idahoans diagnosed with Alzheimer's to fill Bronco Stadium. And since that conversation, research has indicated that Alzheimer's could triple in the United States by the year 2050. To that end, What They Had's Ruth represents many of us. With her increasing difficulty remembering people, places or things, Ruth's memory is fading as fast as her footprints in a snowfall.
In the film, Ruth's disappearance from home triggers frantic, middle-of-the-night phone calls to her daughter Bridget (Swank) and son Nicky (Shannon). And precisely 21 minutes and 30 seconds into the film come the words that too many of us have either had to say or hear when faced with our own family crises:
"Dad, we need to talk," says Bridget.
"She's my girl. You can't take my girl away from me," protests Ruth's husband Bert (Forster), insisting that her place is with him at home instead of in a memory-care facility.
Chomko spent three years penning her film's script after receiving a screenwriting fellowship from no less than the Motion Picture Academy. Her story is intensely personal, following her own grandmother's diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
"The journey of loving my grandmother, and each other, through memory loss was more profound than I could have imagined," Chomko said at last month's premiere of What They Had at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It brought my family closer together and pulled us apart, and prompted all of us to sort of come of age, no matter how old we were. It was heartbreaking, of course, but it was also life-affirming, and spiritual, and absolutely hilarious."
Indeed, What They Had confirms that hilarity comes at the most unexpected moments.
"Grandma just drank the holy water," says a shocked granddaughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), following a Christmas Mass at the neighborhood Catholic church.
"Well, at least she's hydrated," says the nonplussed Nicky.
"In the saddest moments of our lives, the heaviness has to be broken, and that's often with laughter," said Swank, beaming at the TIFF premiere. "Capturing that on film can easily fall flat, but Elizabeth [Chomko] is both emotionally aware and intellectually acute."
To be sure, there has been an endless stream of Hollywood films and Broadway plays about families dealing with Alzheimer's, some of them very good (2014's Still Alice, which won Julianne Moore an Oscar, jumps to mind), but What They Had is elevated from the pack by its quartet of amazing performances. Forster and Shannon are always great, and Swank reminds us why she already has two Best Actress Oscars on her shelf. But, above all, this is Danner's film. Watching her, I was quickly swept back to a time when she was a winsome ingenue in Butterflies Are Free (1969). But that was a good many snowfalls ago.