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WHAT THEY HAD: 3 ½ STARS. “strong performances across the board.”

Tough and tender, “What They Had” is a story of Alzheimer’s and dysfunction but never dips into the easy sentimentality of many other family dramas.

Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko begins the story with Ruth (Blythe Danner), in a dementia daze, dressed in a nightgown, getting out of bed and walking off into a blizzard. The disappearance is short-lived but serious enough for Ruth’s daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) and granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to fly to Chicago from California to come to her side.

Son Nick (Michael Shannon) thinks it is time to put Ruth in a home where she can be looked after but Burt (Robert Forster), her husband of decades, wants her to stay home where he can look after her. Caught between Nick and Burt, Bridget believes her mother should be put in a memory care facility called Reminisce Neighbourhood but is torn in the best way to make it happen.

The synopsis does “What They Had” no favours. It sounds like a downer, an earnest movie of the week style story of bickering siblings up against a stubborn patriarch. But it is more than that. There is pain, anger and heartbreak but there is also humour. Shannon’s outbursts, born of frustration and a certain amount of realism, are often amusing and always hit exactly the right notes.

There are strong performances across the board—Swank, Forster and Farmiga all feel completely authentic—but the film’s beating heart is Danner, who plays Ruth as though she’s wearing a shroud of sadness at her fleeting memory.

“What They Said” occasionally feels cluttered, as though the focus is spread to widely over all the characters, but its unflinching eye for detail is a strength not a minus.

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