“What They Had” begins, appropriately, in a state of confusion. Ruth (Blythe Danner) has wandered from her Chicago apartment into the snowy night, and husband Burt (Robert Forster) can’t find her. (Ruth has Alzheimer’s and is just as likely to be headed for her childhood home as her current one.)
Burt summons his middle-aged son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who’s concerned but also furious. He knew this would happen. Soon Ruth and Burt’s other child, Bridget (Hilary Swank), is on her way from California with her college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Nicky resents Bridget for distancing herself from their parents’ problems; sulky Emma also resents her mother, but for other reasons.
After Ruth is found safe, a doctor explains that something bad might have happened to her that never even occurred to her family. If it seems obvious that Ruth needs the sort of care available in a home for people with incipient dementia, that’s not clear to Burt. While Bridget basically agrees with Nicky, she’s reluctant to do anything about it.
The title of writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s feature debut refers to Ruth and Burt’s shared history, evoked over-obviously by the family photos and home movies that Chomko intersperses throughout the movie. But the story is also about the relationship between Nicky and Bridget, and the damage done to both of them by their father. A military veteran and resolute Catholic, Burt trusts utterly in tradition and authority. He’s as sure that his wife shouldn’t live in a memory-care facility as he is about everything else.
Burt disapproves of both Nicky’s career — he runs a bar — and his son’s unmarried status. Bridget married someone that her father essentially picked out for her, and she’s now as unhappy in that union as her daughter is at school, where she feels she’s failing.
Where is Ruth in all this?
Barely present, except as a problem to be solved. Danner handles that role ably, but as written, Ruth is far less credible than characters in similar situations played by Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) and Julie Christie (“Away from Her”). While Ruth is often bewildered, she becomes rational only when the script requires, which is as convenient as it is unconvincing.
If the characterization of Ruth is facile, it’s less so than the story’s final chapter. Despite the family’s losses, the movie ends in a sunny mode — literally, in this case, as the action hops from Chicago to California. The final moment, intended to generate smiles, is likely to earn groans instead.
What works best here comes between the movie’s heavy opening and its lightweight conclusion. That’s the relationship between cocksure Nicky and the wavering Bridget, both of whom are embodied with extraordinary conviction by Shannon and Swank. Although not as acidly etched as the siblings in Tamara Jenkins’s superb 2007 film “The Savages,” Nicky and Bridget are complicated, unidealized and believable. What they have seems more real — and more interesting — than what Ruth and Burt are in the process of losing.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong language and a brief sexual reference. 100 minutes.