Family feels real in this drama that takes on Alzheimer's disease and the way it affects different individuals

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A family is forced to deal with the pains of Alzheimer's disease in writer-director Elizabeth Chomko's "What They Had," an affecting drama propped up by unexpected and humanizing moments of comedy. 

"What They Had" deals with family dynamics and dysfunction on several different levels at once. It burrows in and allows us to get to know the characters and their relationships to one another, so we feel what they're dealing with as they're dealing with it. The characters feel like real people, and those people feel like a family. 

Hilary Swank plays Bridget, who returns from California to Chicago when her mother Ruth's (Blythe Danner) Alzheimer's worsens. Michael Shannon is her brother, Nick, who owns a bar in the city; Robert Forster, in his best role since "Jackie Brown," is their father, Norbert. 

Bridget and Nick are trying to convince Norbert to put their mother into a nursing home, but Norbert is reluctant. He has a strict definition of love — "love is commitment, no bells and whistles," he says, like it's his motto — and standing by his wife through thick and thin is a part of that love. 

Chomko, in her writing and directing debut, takes the time to explore the various relationships within the family — between Bridget and Nick, Nick and Norbert, and especially Norbert and Ruth — giving her screenplay a lived-in, well-rounded feel. 

"What They Had" is more than a disease movie, it's the story of a family, and it's relatable because of the family members' flaws and their honesty with one another. Chomko creates a strong web of characters in a situation that tests them and their relationships. Sounds easy, but you recognize the times it's done well, and this is one of them.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama  

'What They Had'

GRADE: B+

Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference

Running time: 101 minutes

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